30 August 2005

Consumer unfriendly devices

My views on the EyeTV device in another post here converged with this post from Charles Arthur's blog about a serious problem he encountered with his Sky+ box.

My dabblings with the EyeTV device were also only brought about by the complete failure of my Pace Twin Micro PVR to do a reliable job after applying every software update I could.

In just one area (PVR's) these stories paint a very poor picture indeed of what we as consumers have become accustomed to, and actually accept (or do we?). Charles and I are relatively geeky people. What happens to the mass of people who are not? VCR's just worked. And when they didn't it was likely to be human error - something we can accept.

I think this picture is replicated in so many areas of technology today and is getting worse. HDTV's promise will be a massive disappointment to many people when it first comes out, mark my words. The result will be considerably slower takeup. I already refrain from recommending what should be great stuff to (non-geeky) friends because I know it doesn't just work like it should. Charles has had some serious frustrations with Digital Terrestrial TV. I bought a DAB radio for my car 4 years ago that was completely useless. What about the endless efforts by consumers to protect their computer equipment from virii, spyware etc. At the minimum wage, I suspect the collective cost of time consumed is greater than the GDP of a mid-sized nation!

On the other hand, it shows that we should indeed celebrate when things do work as we hoped and expected. If anyone doubts that the success of the iPod is primarily about the fact that it JUST WORKS (iPod + iTunes + iTMS) for (just about) everyone should check out some of the other products in geekdom occasionally.

However, even in iPodland, there are efforts afoot to mess this up. While this is a well-covered topic from last week, this article is a good analysis of how big companies (still) just don't get it. Such efforts will be counter-productive to all concerned (content providers, intermediaries and of course law-abiding consumers).

These collective failings are serious indeed, and perhaps we geeks have to do something about it by not accepting faulty products because we can either live with the deficiencies or work around them? We certainly can't rely on consumer reviews to do anything about them because they're either just not up to the job (eg Which magazine), or not sufficiently independent of the vendor themselves.

Thoughts please?

update: read this on Hollywood and Vista and weep

Pocket EyeTV for DTT - an apology

First things first, an apology is in order. My brief (first impressions) review of the Pocket EyeTV device turns out to be next-to-useless. Perhaps I should refrain from a first impressions review in the future? (My Nokia 6680 review on the other hand is still pretty fair).

I have now got 3 different problems with the EyeTV device in my configuration. And, while I was initially happy with the responsiveness of the support people, that seems to have dried up when you send a second email in on the incident which demonstrates you've already done the obvious things.

Problem 1 was observed when watching sports. Cricket and football seemed strange. I couldn't quite put my finger on it. But then I stored a few frames using the screenshot feature built into Mac OS X. I noticed that there were often 2 images of player and/or ball in the same frame. Despite trying different eyetv preferences and different screen settings and frequencies, I could not eliminate these problems. It might be solely due to the use of an external plasma display via DVI or VGA but it is extremely annoying, and despite sharpness/colour advantages makes watching such events a problem.

Problem 2 comes usually after a few days of typical use (which for me involve leaving the computer on sleep much of the time). After a while, the live TV window no longer picks up a signal. It sometimes gets hung only on the higher number channels or even specific signals, but then degenerates into a complete inability to receive any channel. Rebooting the computer does NOT fix this. Only unplugging/replugging the device in the USB port fixes it. That indicates a firmware problem with the device - only in this situation is firmware reloaded, as during restart power is still provided by USB. I have seen this exact problem reported elsewhere. This means the device cannot be relied upon to record shows unattended (a prime reason for having this device). I don't know the exact circumstances as to why it goes into this mode - I suspect its something to do with sleep and/or restarting the application rather than leaving it permanently on.

Problem 3 also happens intermittently. When watching a recording, I note a lot of stuttering frames or brief (up to 1/2 sec) pauses. These pauses happen in the same places indicating the problem took place on the recording, rather than during playback. I have been keen to keep other applications off when running the EyeTV software. So, it should easily be able to keep up. Yet, even after a system restart, memory use seems much higher than on my powerbook (both 512MB RAM). Whether this is the EyeTV app or something else I don't know. My suspicion is however that the stuttering recordings are created when the machine decides to do a lot of memory swapping. Some recordings don't exhibit this. My suspicion is that these are recordings made soon after a restart, and that over time, the machine becomes increasingly incapable of making a smooth recording.

All of these problems mean that the device is not achieving what I had hoped for - a replacement of my Pace PVR. I will have to consider a return which will be a hugely disappointing blow in my quest to build a reasonable HT/media centre setup.

22 August 2005

BT - don't ya just luv 'em

I had thought BT was getting better at handling customers, but then 2 episodes have convinced me it's all on the surface, and underneath it's rotten.

Early this year, I cancelled one of my lines which wasn't getting used. I was promised that the number itself could be made to ring on my other line for £1/month. The person doing this was very professional, but wrong. I couldn't have this number, I had to have a randomly issued one. This was later communicated to me after the line had been cancelled. All apologetic, we resolved this with BT providing me with a "this number has changed" message for 3 months free. Not great, but it would do. I received a "final bill" for this line which, as settled by DD, was of course paid. Not a great experience, but I accepted the error that was made.

Then 3 months later, I receive a stream of invoices for the same line, but under a different account number. All invoices said "Final bill". 2 were for £30 (one was an amended one), and one was for £6 with some credits showing. I also received a suggestion to perhaps pay by direct debit (I thought I did!). I didn't do anything, but then I got a final reminder. So, I called BT....

20 minutes on hold - "we're very busy" then a disconnect.
18 minutes on hold - then India and a very bad line. No issue with the guy on the line who did have access to the information (but still required me to give him the number I'd already entered) - told me the £30 was for the message but didn't know why I'd received 3 bills or 4 different bills all saying "Final bill". Said he'd have to transfer me... another 10 minutes on hold, then Irene (UK) answers and asks for my phone number...and then... click... disconnect.

Well, I've got better things to do. So when BT comes looking for their £30, I'll refer them to here. By the time they do, I'll have forgotten this waste of an hour, but this way it's here for me to point them to when they eventually get round to calling me.

Footnote: This reminds me of a site I was considering setting up sometime back called something like www.crapservice.com (inspired by f*****company.com), which was to highlight really poor customer service. I decided not to do this because of the libel implications of people posting false claims. But really someone has to bring these companies to account for what they do, don't they?


Excellent article over at Ars Technica covering HD, Windows Vista, DRM etc.

I had been wondering about this topic for some time, and this article confirms my fears. Basically for HDTV, we will get whatever DRM we are given. We will not be able to avoid it except in return for lower quality.

Will this slow down the adoption of HDTV and related technologies such as blu-ray? Will someone come up with something legal or illegal that breaks through this? Will the content creators have learned from iTunes that it is POSSIBLE to have DRM that is (generally) consumer-acceptable? I suspect no - they'll do whatever they've always done - limit stuff as much as they can to start with.

However, I'd be very careful about spending a bucketload on a high end tv (or computer monitor for that matter) until this whole area resolves itself. I've already learned through experience that "HDTV-ready" for instance is meaningless. If you buy a set today, buy it for what it does for you TODAY, and don't justify higher amounts by what it MIGHT do tomorrow (cause you'll just be disappointed!).

19 August 2005

My Salling Clicker Review on Powerpage

I've written a short (well short for me) review of Salling Clicker (Mobile phone as a remote control) over at Jason O'Grady's Powerpage

I'll give him the "exclusive" for the time being, but as there are no comments on his site (for this article) you can post comments here. I'll do an updated one here soon.

16 August 2005

iPod, Patents and the media

In a somewhat quiet week, this article seems to have been the catalyst for some much more headline-grabbing press. Basically the article seems to suggest that Apple has lost a patent application about some part of the iPod interface, and that the winner is... Microsoft! (note: you have to read other articles to find that the patent filer is a Microsoft employee)

From what I can gather, despite good and early rebuttals of the relevance of this from Andrew Orlowski at The Register, some people have just added 2+2 and come up with 42. The Independent (obviously missing Charles Arthur's insightfulness while he is away) came up with this ridiculous extrapolation based (apparently) on nothing more than the original Appleinsider story and a complete lack of knowledge of patent law.

I personally found this article to be the most clear cut in its analysis of both the situation AND the media's failings.

Now, I've also got a conspiracy theory to add in. Perhaps Apple wanted a story like this to do the rounds just to distract everyone from endless speculation and discussion about the next iteration of iPods and other goodies to be announced at Apple Expo in Paris in about a month's time? This seems a pretty innocuous way of getting the rumour sites to focus on something else!

But should this story turn out to have a grain of truth - if Microsoft really gets royalties for managing to patent an interface that was publicly available on a device from it's arch-rival, with its submission MORE THAN 5 months after this device was publicly released, then it might surely be the beginning of the end for current patent law as we know it? That's long overdue when it leads to such obvious stupidities as granting a patent for a stick and the many other grants for patenting the bleeding obvious since the era of business process patents.

10 August 2005

Nokia 6680 and Opera Mobile Browser

Just discovered the Opera browser for Nokia/Symbian Series 60 phones. (note this is the browser, not the Opera mini service which may also be interesting once released in the UK). Even better news is that it's apparently free for the Nokia 6680. In fact, I think it should be preloaded. So presumably another Orange "customisation" to take it off!

I had been a bit frustrated when trying the standard browser, though to be fair, I hadn't spent a lot of time on it.

But with this, it seems to do a good job of taking normal pages (eg bbc news, this blog) and displaying them in a way that is familiar and makes sense. Plus, I was able to figure out bookmarks, navigation, images etc much faster. Performance on a 3G network also seems good.

I had come to the (obviously premature) conclusion that browsing on the phone was a waste of time. But, this makes it MUCH, MUCH more usable.

It's also available for many other devices at just $19.95 I think for a limited time.

08 August 2005

EyeTV for DTT (DVB-T)

I have just got the EyeTV for DTT system - EyeTV software for mac with a tiny (and I mean tiny) DVB-T receiver which plugs into a USB 2.0 port. The receiver is really not much bigger than a box of matches. It has an attachment for an antenna (included) or you can plug in your own coax. It actually matches the mac mini quite well in style (metal and shiny white, rounded edges). The EyeTV software makes it all work on a mac. Combined with a tvtv.co.uk subscription, it all seems to work neatly indeed.

I've been using a Pace Twin Micro Personal Video Recorder for Freeview. This does have the advantage of TWIN tuners - so I can watch something and record something else. However, for me this is a rarity. However, that's the limit of its advantages. The worst thing about this is that despite countless software updates, the thing still crashes regularly. This crash is usually as it's about to start recording a show - so you miss it, and any shows set up afterwards to be recorded. To reset it you must pull the plug from the socket - there is no other power button! Storage is limited to 10GB, though you can install a larger drive. Performance on the TV guide and Teletext is truly awful. Setting it to record a channel 5 program using the guide means waiting around 10 minutes for the info to come in.

Because of my wiring, the quality from the Pace is good, but not great - I am just using a composite connection. Football programs are not good at all.

The EyeTV/DTT is currently about £99 at the Apple Store inc shipping - so a little more than a standard Freeview decoder. But it is half the price of the Firewire EyeTV device, and also half what I paid for the Pace box.

I installed it with just one minor problem first time. I couldn't get the sound output at first, but that was my fault to do with my use of an external usb sound device. Once I sorted out the system preferences, I am now getting digital sound out to the hifi. The quality of the picture on the plasma screen via DVI out on the mac mini is truly excellent. Apart from sharpness, the key difference is in overall brightness and saturation of the picture. Realtime full screen display seems perfect - even when other things are running.

The tvtv subscription seems straightforward - all handled as part of the initial software install/registration process. It would have been nice if it recognised by my product that I didn't have Sky etc. But making it show only Freeview channels is comparably simple. It seems very easy to pick a program, and set it to record. And remember, I can do that from anywhere I am with a web browser, and the mini will pick up the timing. That was a big frustration for me with the Pace box.

This is not a thorough review - I've yet to test its record/playback features for instance. And, I'm not sure how I'll go about keeping my mini awake or regularly checking the internet for new recordings - it's usually in sleep mode when not used. But first impressions are very positive indeed.

(Oh, and of course, it's portable. So, I can also take it with me for a weekend!)

04 August 2005

Wireless Security (not)

Interesting, I am at JFK, and thought I'd look for wireless networks.
The only one that let me on was the El Al one!
Obviously their view of security is limited!

Breakfast @ Kurt's

Breakfast @ Kurt's
Originally uploaded by Hobflickr.
Ellen, Ron Verstappen, Dave and Kurt at W27th on a hot morning

02 August 2005

Mark Lobene and Dave Bartoletti, NY, Aug 05

Friends-of-old (definitely NOT old friends)

US Immigration

My flight was relatively on-time. However, as I turned the corner
into immigration, I couldn't believe what I saw.
There were at least 1000 people in front of me. We were in a snaking
queue, just 4 rows deep, but each line of the snake was probably 50
metres or more. That was the queue to get to the queue in front of
each booth. Out of the 24 booth's for visitor immigration, perhaps
50% were staffed. So, 12 booths processing 1,000 people or more. It
took me almost 2 hours to get through - not what I wanted at 4am in
the morning UK time. The process isn't significantly slower than it
used to be - the extra fingerprint step (left and right index fingers
+ photo) doesn't take too long. But should human beings be treated
this way? I'm over on a 2 day trip! I would NEVER consider a
shopping trip to NY again. It is just demeaning. Added to this is
that you can't use a mobile anytime till you're cleared. Why? This
is a stupid rule. Instead of telling people you've arrived; instead
of arranging your transport; you do absolutely NOTHING for 2 hours
but stand and shuffle your bags a few metres at a time. When you do
get out, the transport is a mess - complete gridlock because
relatives have come to pick up people, and instead of just doing a
pick up, the whole place is a parking lot.

In case you think I just hit the wrong time, the queue was still at
least the same size when I got out!

It's never been great in immigration into the US, but it's worse than
ever - at a time when airport taxes are higher and higher. For
anyone seeing their first glimpse of America, it appears far from the
Land of the Free, and it's fabled efficiency is just a joke. If you
economically costed this fiasco it would be in billions a year. Is
this what we might have to get used to in the UK?

Update: On returning to the UK, I disembarked (or de-planed as I've heard say) via a bus, went through customs, got a taxi home to SW London all in under 50 minutes. If I'd been an American, I doubt it would have taken any longer. While it was a longer line here than I've been used to, and slower moving, it was NOTHING like the US. Anyone considering a shopping trip to NY should seriously factor in that a 7 hour flight these days is more like a 13 hour home-to-hotel trip, and IMHO you've got to save a lot of money to justify losing 26 hours of your life on a return trip.


I sit here writing this looking at the LCD screen of the Virgin
Atlantic entertainment system in front of me.

This is not a basic entertainment system. This is state of the art
aboard an Airbus A340-600 with lots of stuff available on-demand.
(Did I need my iPod?)

Without going into details, the screen looks very similar to the DOS
start-up screens of old - at least when something is wrong.

In beautiful monochrome 80 x 24 I've got basically a "Bus Error in
svgalib:Signal 7. Please press Enter to continue". But of course,
there is not a single key marked "Enter" on the double-sided keypad,
with TWO sets of up/down/left/right/select iPod shuffle-style buttons
on just the one side.

Ah well, it's been rebooted now by the cabin attendant (ctrl-alt-
del?), and something is happening.

Actually it's all in Linux apparently (given away by one of the lines
of error message).

We were also asked not to start it all up at once - apparently 300
passengers overloads the server!

Now, I'm sure this is great really, but why put this output up on a
screen read by a passenger? It's now taken 3 minutes from the reboot
to the loading, and I'm still getting an eggtimer. Now the screen's
gone blank again with no feedback. It's just the BSOD (where B=Black
in this case)

I used to be quite happy with the 16 channel video service offered.
That plus an iPod and a book was all you could really ask for. And
it worked.

And, it was massively better than any US airllne. I once got on a
brand new United Airlines Boeing 777 (it was 2 weeks old) in business
class too.
I looked and looked for my seatback video, but couldn't find
anything. So, I asked the stewardess. She said, that they'd "had a
choice between seatback video and vibrating seats, and plumped for
the vibrating seats on this plane". This was the last century, but
only just. By then Virgin had had video in ECONOMY for, what, 8
years? This is a completely true story! I have never flown United
Airlines again.

Now, back to the flight: the cabin attendant has said she will reboot
the whole system as it's affecting a lot of people. This will take
about 10 mins. If this doesn't work, she'll have to turn it off
completely and back on, which could take 40 minutes!

Glad I brought my iPod and book after all!

update: penguin back, and lots of scrolling nonesense. It's only
been about 15 mins now since I started this post. I could have
photo'd this, but I'm not supposed to use my phone!

(I also believe this system has been around for almost 2 years now -
my other half had it on the same type of plane to Tokyo. So, it's
had plenty of time to work out the bugs. Come on guys!)

update 2; now loading fonts. Fonts? 7%, 10%, - 2 minutes to load
verifying configs... stuck again!

Eventually, a hard reset was necessary, and it took about another 30
minutes (in the end we had no entertainment for the first 2 hours),
but surprisingly it worked. I was able to watch the complete first
series of the Office and the first one of Nighty Night - there is a
truly huge selection here. And the CD jukebox feature is also quite

However, the user interface really sucks. The two ipod shuffle-like
groups of keys are confusing (when to use which set) and you are
often flipping between the two to achieve even basic tasks. The Play/
Pause I would have expected to be the centre button, but it is around
the top (ie equivalent to volume up on ipod). And, the wiring on the
remote means it's quite hard to keep it in the right orientation, so,
you are sometimes pressing it upside down.

Anyway, you got mostly my realtime thoughts here, so apologies for
the rambling.

ps: KISS = Keep It Simple, Stupid for those not in the software biz

Please help me understand #2 - Michael Owen only worth £12m

Can anyone explain to me or point me in the direction of how I can
understand this better?

Michael Owen is IMHO a very good footballer. He has scored some
spectacular goals at the highest levels, and is a regular and
dependable goal scorer. He is still young (25), and has been
relatively fit. I can understand that Real Madrid got a bargain last
year when they bought him, as he had just one year left on his
contract. He has performed well for Real, at least according to the
stats I've seen. So, I cannot understand now how he is valued at
"just" £12m. It is a lot less than players like Rio Ferdinand,
Wayne Rooney, Beckham, and countless others. As an Evertonian, it
does not come easy for me to rank a former Liverpool player highly,
but I do (and Gerrard too). Why don't loads of clubs want him? Are
there issues about his Real contract? Does he have a lot of say in
where he goes, therefore limiting the number of clubs who can bid,
and therefore the price? Does his "quieter" life limit his income
from being a brand?

I'm not saying £12m isn't an obscene amount of money for someone
(IMHO it is), it's just that it seems a much lower obscene amount
than other comparable players have fetched).

Please help me understand #1 - Foam and the Shuttle

My basic physics education taught me that a ham sandwich dropped from
the Empire State building could do a lot of damage when it hit the
ground. I had thought that was to do with it's speed attained
through acceleration due to gravity. Now, surely, a piece of foam
(less than a kilo?) coming off of one component hurtling at thousands
of miles an hour, and hitting another component travelling at the
same speed can not do any real damage? But it obviously does.

So, is this because in the time between it falling off and hitting
the other part, the acceleration has been such that there is in fact
a significant speed difference? Or is there some other factor
involved that I am too dumb to see?

And, while we're on this topic. Did this used to happen to some/most/
all Shuttle missions, but only became an issue after Challenger? Or
is it a new phenomena? And, in the intervening period, surely, they
would have mastered the art of ensuring that they can keep the foam
from falling off?

UPDATE 9/8/05:
I've now read up quite a bit on this. I've found out that the foam used is quite a bit heavier than, say, styrofoam used in coffee cups. It's about 5-10 times as dense for instance. The piece that came off was about 2kg. I've also found out that it was travelling at a speed of 500mph (I presume this speed is the RELATIVE velocity). So, I guess 2kg at 500mph could be quite an impact. I'm not sure how that relative speed happened but I think a theory one possibility mentioned to me is as good as any - deceleration relative to the shuttle itself. Also, I guess with fluid dynamics the piece was probably spinning and heading in a different direction by the time it hit (ie the shuttle didn't just come up and hit this floating piece of foam).

Also, where it hit the shuttle seems to be important. If the damage was done around the leading edge or to a particular bit that allowed gases in, then the shuttle's vulnerability was a lot more.

I also found in the past, NASA had observed a lot of this insulation foam coming off, without real incident, so it became accepted as normal and non-dangerous, when in fact they had perhaps been lucky because it had never hit the vulnerable places.

If you've got a spare hour or two, you can find out more via wikipedia, and also at

01 August 2005

Off to NY today

I'm off on a quick visit to NY today for a client.
It's my first US visit for many years - having been a many-times-a-year transatlantic person for so long.

It's also my first trip to NY since before 9/11 (11/9).

Will have my mobile camera and an internet connection some of the time, so let's see if I can find anything interesting to post!

HP-Apple iPod relationship no more

I always thought this was a great deal for Apple in most respects - especially distribution. It also helped establish the iPod in more eyes as a device that did not just belong with Macs. I never quite understood the value for HP except that it gave it a worldclass product. But in many ways it served to highlight HP's own failings - an area it should have been good at.

However, it's now a different world than it was then. The distribution issue is no more - Apple has Walmart and Radio Shack for instance - places it didn't have in the past, and that HP did. There is probably no retailer in the US that would NOT want to sell the iPod. I doubt there will be a big loss in overall outlets.

Financially, Apple should also benefit in the short term. Splitting increasingly tighter margins with another party in the chain does not leave much room. HP might have lost money on everyone it sold, but it still took some of the valuable margin.

For HP it serves to highlight the mistakes they have made, and if the rumours that they can't sell another brand for 12 months, and that iTunes will continue to be loaded are true, then it seems they still have a product weakness.

But I can't help thinking that this is a longer term bad thing for Apple. It needs friends. It is still a small company next to Dell, next to IBM/Lenovo, next to HP, Sony, Toshiba, and of course, next to MS. And of course, there are Nokia and SonyEriccson biting a the heels too. iTunes/iPod does all most people need in the easiest to use way, but as those other companies push out WMA content, and Media Center devices etc. it will increasingly be hard to go against that flow. Apple has to do SO many deals with content people etc that this will consume a lot of its time and energies. I think the Intel deal was more than about chips - it was about changing the competitive landscape, and as much a plus for Intel as Apple. Apple has a big new friend (though it is only a bit player for Intel of course).

Apple's iPod strategy is dependent upon people believing that their actions (buying music, ripping CD's in certain formats etc) are one-time actions. If people believe they'll end up having to re-rip in a different format, or buy music in another format from another store, the appeal of the iPod could change very quickly - esp to non Mac users. I've been pleased that an iTunes AAC-coded file played straight away on my new Nokia phone, but of course, that won't happen for purchased AAC music. We as consumers need Apple to succeed. Sure it needs competition, but if we have ONLY the WMA route to go, we'll be back in the grip of MS, and of usage policies dictated by the large content companies.

I hope Apple replaces HP with some new friends!