Thursday 17 April 2008

BBC Sub Editors' Headline of the Month

"Psychics Face Uncertain Future"...

Well it gave me a right giggle, I just heard it on Breakfast TV and it doesn't seem to be up on the web yet but I'll link to it if and when it does; apparently the Gummint in the UK plans to introduce some regulation for those charlatans who claim to be able to divine the future. I can't wait to see how they propose to achieve that wonderful goal - perhaps practitioners will be required to actually make successful predictions in order to remain licensed?

Yeah I know it's an old sub editing classic but I was delighted that the BBC was prepared to roll it out...

Monday 7 April 2008

Microsoft fixes Windows Live Hotmail access on Windows Mobile 6

A couple of months back I complained about the fact that AT&T had removed the Windows Live Services components from their Windows Mobile 6 ROM upgrade for the BlackJack. The net result of this was that it became almost impossible to set up Hotmail access on the BlackJack which I thought was pretty stupid. AT&T weren't alone in this so many Windows Mobile 6 users were unable to make use of Microsoft's own online services which seriously hampered the take up of Microsoft's Live Mobile services.

It appears that Microsoft has taken note of this and done the right thing - the Windows Live for Windows Mobile components are now available as a download so users can now fix this cleanly and legitimately.

The direct download of the cabs for all versions of Windows Mobile 6 is available here. Thanks to Jason Langridge for giving us the heads up.

Sunday 6 April 2008

The cost of Mobile "Broadband"

I was just listening to some Vodafone PR rep on Today FM's Sunday Business Show and was fuming at the mouth at her compete failure to forthrightly answer the questions that were raised. I was even more irritated by the questions being put by the host and the other guests - nobody seems to have a handle on the scale of the extortionate scam that is being run by the cellular operators.

Their claim is that they have a mobile broadband experience available with national coverage and that it is affordable and even cost effective\competitive. In Vodafone's case they claim "88%" cover for 3G services but will only explain what that means if the person posing the question really nails them - in this case the SBS didn't push the question sufficiently. It's not just Vodafone though - the others aren't significantly different although in some areas their competitors really are showing them up,

Now for starters I am a fan of cellular broadband and I want it to succeed but these sort of claims are clearly rubbish and need to be exposed so that consumers can understand what they can get and feel happy to pay for it if they want to use it. The providers also need to be pressured into actually delivering the quality of service that consumers deserve at better pricing. It's incredible that Vodafone and O2 can charge lower rates across the board in the UK when they parted with tens of billions Sterling to purchase their UK licenses and had to pay nothing for the same licenses here in Ireland. At the time it was estimated that the costs of those licenses would amount to something close to £100-200 per subscriber per annum for the lifetime of the 3G technology. I would love to see our regulator putting them under the microscope for that - the decision not to charge a license fee was supposed to lead to lower prices and it clearly has failed to do that.

Anyway on to the claims made by Vodafone. Their current claim of 88% coverage for 3G services refers to the percentage of the population covered, I believe. In practice it means that baseline 3G services (ie 384kbps down and 64kbps up) are only available within about a kilometre of large towns and cities. If you find yourself in an area that is even vaguely "in the country" you will fall back to the GSM (2G)  voice and the GPRS data network with its 50-60kbps downlink and 16kbps uplink data rates. High speed 3G (HSxPA) services (with 1-3+ Mbps downlink and 64-1Mbps uplink) are only available in very limited large urban areas at the moment. The HSxPA roll out will extend to cover the existing 3G services base over the next year or so but Vodafone do not currently have any near or medium term plan to replace the bulk of their geographical are cover with 3G services because they have a significant technical and financial problem in doing that: there are no (or not enough) appropriate 3G frequency bands that are cost effective for large rural coverage right now and that will remain the case until the 900Mhz GSM band can be re-allocated to 3G. A 900Mhz 3G base station is in practice capable of covering 4-16x the physical area that an 1800Mhz cell can cover using transmitters and handsets of the same power. Vodafone have a major problem moving their GSM services from 900Mhz because of all of the (mostly rural) telemetry services that they provide over their 900Mhz network to electricity, water, gas and other utility providers who all jumped on cellular telemetry solutions from Eircell way back in the mid 90's. I don't think any of the other Irish cellular providers took a significant part of that market but until Vodafone is in a position to replace that GSM 900 network they will certainly find it nearly impossible to extend their coverage significantly past 90% of the population (ie <<20% of the geographical area of the country) and if they can't compete in that market O2 are probably not going to bother either. Neither 3 or Meteor are in a financial position to fill that gap so for now, I'm afraid, rural mobile cellular broadband remains a distant dream.

Vodafone also claimed that 1Mbps is available for most users today [ note they didn't claim 88% had 1Mbps available just that 88% were covered by 3G] and 3Mbps will follow soon. I don't think that the 1Mbps claim is true in the way most people would understand it but if the initial HSDPA rollout has progressed to cover all of the large cities in the country then it might be arguably true. Assume it is true for a minute.

Right now if you buy a 3G data capable mobile phone as a consumer the basic Vodafone tariffs give you the ability to buy a data bundle for €10 per Month (15Megabytes) or €15 per month (25 Megabytes). The killer is in the marginal price per meg of €2.50\€2.00 for any data in excess of the bundle. [This has halved in the last couple of weeks, it used to be €5 per Megabyte for any data in excess of the bundle]

If you wanted to watch a movie on this "Mobile Broadband" service you would be sucking down somewhere in the order of 1Gigabyte of data. Now that might be a bit mad on a phone but if Vodafone do actually live up to their promise and deliver a 3Mbps service sometime soon you could (in theory) download a 1GByte movie file in about 45minute - 1 hour which isn't that bad. At a cost of €2 per Megabyte for each meg over 25Meg though it would cost you €2000 for the privilege, which is crazy money to be charging for what is relatively little data in this day and age.

If you buy a Vodafone 3G data modem for your PC you get 5GB of data for around €40 per month so you could actually use it to downlaod and watch some movies [a reasonable expectation from a "Broadband" product] but again any data above that gets charged at the ludicrous marginal rate of €20 per Megabyte - so your sixth movie download would cost you €20,000. Thanks to Brad for correcting me on this, it's 2c/meg which is far more reasonable, sorry for that folks.

O2's charges used to be even worse but their iPhone data plan gives me 1Gigabyte of data for free and all excess data is charged at 2c/Meg [that's 100 times cheaper than Vodafone's marginal rate] so I could get one movie download for free and any additional one would cost me about €20 [including the hypothetical sixth one which would then have been 1000x cheaper than it would have been over a Vodafone 3G modem]. The problem with the iPhone [currently] is that it only supports EDGE data rates which are around 100kbps at best so a movie would take a full day to download at best and probably would take 2-3days to download in practice. It's pretty obvious that almost nobody will ever download significantly more than 1GB / month on a current iPhone so O2 Ireland's decision to cap it at 1GB was a bit stupid - they would never lose any money on it and they have taken a lot of pointless criticism over that minor point since nearly all other iPhone suppliers have just given the users an "unlimited" data plan. Personally I could care less - I've been using it heavily from my perspective for three weeks and I've only used 30Meg of EDGE data in total and have yet to incur a single additional charge of any sort on my monthly bill. That's all well and good from a cost perspective but the iPhone's limited cellular radio cannot be described as mobile broadband under any circumstances.

And in all of this I haven't even started on the craziness around international mobile data roaming charges that are so arcane that Vodafone once had the nerve to tell me that until they actually run their monthly accounts they could not tell how much a particular roaming data connection was going to cost. That was total nonsense, of course, but a senior Vodafone exec insisted it was true and I would assume that cellular execs will continue to make such claims until they are publicly ridiculed about how incompetent it makes them look.

Clearly none of the Irish providers are actually anywhere close to delivering a useful and cost effective mobile broadband experience and any time anyone of them claims that they are they should be smacked down.

Wednesday 2 April 2008

iPhone Update

I've been using it for a fortnight now and I have a few additional thoughts. Overall I think I like it more than I did when I got it but there are a few annoyances.

As a basic phone it has proven to be better than I'd hoped - making\receiving calls is quick and reliable

Battery life is slightly better than I expected. Under my normal usage profile it's probably good for two to three days between charges but that drops rapidly down to less than a day when I make extensive use of data. I don't make many calls so for someone who spends a lot of time talking it is probably only good for a day or two at most between charges but on average it is better than any other "smart" phone I've ever used (and I've used a lot). What surprises me the most is that battery life is worse when using Edge\GPRS rather than WiFi for data.

The WiFi stack is excellent - the whole networking stack is better than any other device I've ever used.

The hardware mute key is something that every phone should have. This isn't new or unique to the iPhone, all the Palm Treo's have it as do some other phones, but it is universally missing from Windows Mobile devices and I'm not aware of any Nokia\Motorola\Samsung phones that have one.

The touch screen's ability to recognise finger tips and filter out all other interactions is amazing. It's a simple idea that you don't really notice at first (which makes it even more amazing) but it's done very well and it transforms the touch screen interface from a kludge to something that is a huge advantage.

Despite the brilliance of the touch screen for general UI purposes the on screen keyboard is a very poor substitute for a real QWERTY keypad. It's usable if you are stationary and focused entirely on the device but there's no way you can use it while walking or distracted in any other way. The BlackJack's keypad is a vastly better input method.

The lack of the A2DP Bluetooth profile (high quality stereo audio) is stupid. You can have the full iPod experience integrated with phone functionality out of the box via the wired headphones but you can't have that with Bluetooth.

The camera is just average but the whole integration of the camera with e-mail works perfectly so I've taken to e-mailing pictures to myself rather than go to the trouble of syncing via a PC and I am delighted that I can now just take snaps and send them to people the way I should always have been able to on camera phones in the past but never did because the user interfaces were always so poor or the transmission mechanism (MMS) was so lousy. Despite this the camera interface on the iPhone is too basic and desperately needs a dedicated hardware shutter button - for one thing it is virtually impossible to take a picture of yourself (or yourself with someone else) which is something that I tend to want to do occasionally.

The lack of extended applications, whether they are from Apple or third parties, is a major pain. I want a proper e-Book reader and some games for a start and while the "iPhone Web App" concept makes a stab at that it is, frankly, a lousy user experience.

It looks gorgeous and feels great to hold initially but it is too shiny and slippery overall. I just know I'm going to have it slip out of my hands at some point. At a minimum it needs some sort of rubber\textured grip around the edges. Fingerprint smudges on the screen don't appear to be a problem.

It doesn't make enough use of the internal accelerometer\tilt sensor as a UI feature. Where it does work (when switching from landscape to portrait mode in various applications) it works well but it should be used much more.

The SMS interface is great. The simple and consistent implementation of a conversational chat layout for historical messages is wonderful.

The contact manager needs to add the ability to implement and manage groups. You sort of get this capability after the fact if you mail or send and SMS to multiple contacts but it really should be implemented up front. The Contact Manager should also be on the front page of the UI.

The Recent Calls application should also be part of the front page of the UI.

Device Management from a basic user perspective is poor. For example you can clear cookies\history from Safari but you can't manage remembered passwords. Cleaning up old messages in SMS or e-mail is a painful one at a time process (although this is fixed in V2 I gather).

What I've been Reading

I've been a bit slack posting but I intend to rectify that to some degree as I'm reading a very entertaining book at the moment that is giving me lots of ideas about interesting things to write about.

In the meantime here's the latest update on my reading efforts.

In Flight:

Nassim Nicholas Taleb: The Black Swan. This is the very entertaining book that is giving me so much to think about. It's basic premise is that humans pattern matching brains are poorly equipped to deal with the unexpected. I will be posting about a lot of his principle ideas but I'll pull out one quote that captures the basic idea of the book

The unexpected almost always pushes [projects] in a single direction: higher costs and a longer time to completion.

At a simplistic level this seems logical and inevitable but on the other hand it is a damning reflection on modern humanities inability or unwillingness to honestly assess risks and the "planning" profession in general. He's just as scathing about almost every other profession too which is partly what makes it so entertaining.

The book is full of annoyances and Taleb is outrageously arrogant however I have to give him the benefit of reading the whole book before I decide whether he is unjustifiably arrogant or not, I sincerely hope it is the latter as I'm enjoying this book more than any other non fiction that I've read in years.

Finished:

Jon Ronson: "The Men Who Stare At Goats". It's funny and interesting but it really failed to grab me and I don't think that Ronson made as much of the material that he seems to have had at his disposal as he could have. Part of the problem is that he was writing a funny book and he tries to hard to make the characters he encounters comedic stars when many of them are at best sad and deluded and at worst insane and dangerous. 4/10.

Arthur C. Clarke: "The Songs of distant Earth" and "Rendezvous with Rama". Clarke's recent death led me to dig out these two for a quick read to see if his writing still holds up to my memory of it. In short, it does. He was an excellent story teller and both of these stories are great SF yarns that haven't dated badly in the decades since they were written. 7/10

Terry Pratchett: "Strata". This is one of Pratchett's two early SF novels. This one is particularly interesting as part of the plot revolves around a "discworld" that is built by some mysterious alien civilization. It's a pretty good run of the mill SF book but it's main attraction comes from seeing Pratchett's early ideas about how such a discworld would have to work in a universe that (sort of) played by the rules of our own. I liked it a lot but it is probably only a book that compulsive SF addicts or complete Pratchett fan's should read. 5/10.

Looking Forward To

Charlie Stross: Saturn's Children

Alastair Reynolds: The Prefect

Alastair Reynolds: House of Suns

Terry Pratchett: Nation