Thoughts: Internet of Things

Much of the IoT hype is really just the final arrival of the promised connected devices – something that was being touted as imminent while I was at Wind River, but which really needed Wi-Fi and Bluetooth to come of age first. Today, connected devices are everywhere. Even cars are connected.

Now we live in a world where devices can be connected to a home or office network without requiring cabling. And we can wear lightweight devices that can take advantage of the more powerful computer in our pockets (aka a smartphone) for Internet connectivity using just low power Bluetooth connections. In some cases, even permanent devices, like smart door locks, can be battery-powered and use Bluetooth to connect to a local "bridge" device.

In addition to that always on connectivity, these devices needed simpler controls. Whether touch screens that can adapt, or, more recently, voice control, without more natural controls, many IoT devices would be too complex.

Finally, the arrival of meaningful AI is helping make many of these devices at least seem smarter, and be easier to interact with. Often with natural language, or by having the device simply observe & learn.

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Electric Car Dilemmas

My current car’s lease comes to an end later this year (August time frame) and while I totally love it, for a number of reasons I am looking to make a big change this time around. For a start, I have pretty much been told that I cannot get away with a two seater again. Secondly, the replacement for my current car has been made somewhat anemic by downgrading it to a smaller, less powerful engine. Thirdly, I am just not driving it much (I have done just over 4000 miles in the last 28 months, thanks to commuting via ferry or bus and my trusty scooter).

And so I started looking at electric options with an eye to perhaps letting my wife drive it on a daily basis around our little island city, keeping the miles off the car she insisted on buying rather than leasing and saving some fuel costs into the bargain. But what are the options…

Currently Available

Obviously, there are the two Tesla models, but both are well outside what I am willing to pay right now for something I don’t drive more than a few miles per week. So, that leaves a pretty short list; in no particular order:

  • Mercedes B-Class
  • BMW i3
  • Nissan Leaf
  • VW eGolf
  • Chevrolet Bolt
  • Ford Focus
  • Fiat 500e
  • Smart ForTwo

There are a few others too, but basically that list is the ones I see on the road regularly. Sadly, none of them jump off the screen as being something I really want to drive/own. They all seem somewhat plain and boring.

Coming Soon

Given the sad state of that list, I started looking into what might be coming soon from folks other than Tesla (the new Model 3 looks pretty good on the outside, but the site is very light on actual specs for the car). Interestingly, it seems as though 2018 through 2020 is going to herald a lot more options for electric cars. I found strong contenders from Mercedes, Audi and Jaguar, albeit essentially all SUVs. Even now, I cannot find any manufacturer planning an electric convertible, which is disappointing for me since I love open top motoring (I even had convertibles when I was living in the UK, so now I’m in California it just makes even more sense to me to drive with the top down).

Mercedes EQC

My current favourite, although not slated to arrive until 2019 at the earliest, is what is currently being called the Mercedes EQC. Much like the Tesla, there is very little information on what this will actually look like, but if the interior is anything like the current show concept vehicle, I want one. This thing resembles a science fiction space ship:

Generation EQ, Interior

The videos released for the concept just add to that image of it being a space craft. I seriously hope that as much of this interior as possible makes it into the production car.

Audi eTron

Not one, but two different cars bearing this tag are coming in the next 12-24 months. The first looks as though it will be a mid-size SUV (between the Q5 and Q7 in size). No idea of final pricing, but if you live in Norway you can pre-order one right now. The exterior looks pretty similar to the new Q5 and Q7, perhaps taking the more angular design of the latest cars a little further. The interior of the concept they’ve been showing also looks more like an evolution of current technology:

The “virtual cockpit” dashboard in there has already made an appearance in the current generation Q7 and Q5 cars (and, based on experiences with our new Q5 so far, it is a gorgeous experience). Clearly, this one has more screens, and less buttons though. All good in my books, but it doesn’t scream space ship at me like the EQC does.

The second car, coming during 2019, is a “sportback”/coupe version of the SUV. Perhaps a better fit for me than a pure SUV, but realistically it still doesn’t excite me as much as a convertible would.

Jaguar I-Pace

This one caught my attention last year, and was a bit of a surprise. I was not expecting the Jaguar brand to be where the first electric vehicle appeared from the Jaguar Land Rover family. Compared to the Merc and the Audi, the I-Pace seems like a strong contender however. Good range, amazing 0-60 time and fairly practical as well. Much like the Audi, this isn’t in the space craft realm for interiors, but it does look like a big evolutionary step from their current cars.

When I was choosing my current car, I test drove the convertible F-type from Jaguar. While the driving experience was fantastic, and nobody can deny that the F-type looks gorgeous, I was disappointed with the details that were missing in a car at its price point. Even more so when compared to the Mercedes SLK and Porsche Boxster. It concerns me that the same may well be the case with the I-Pace.

The Dilemma

The dilemma I now face is that with my lease ending in August this year, and all these new, more exciting electrics arriving late next year or beyond, what do I do to fill the gap?

Right now, I am leaning towards buying a used electric from the boring list earlier. Perhaps the Mercedes B250e. Not ideal but it would be a good fill in for that year or so, and also could be used around our home city to keep the miles down on the Q5.

Comcast: Back to the House

Amazingly, despite overwhelming amounts of data from myself, and data from people in Oakland, San Francisco and Santa Clara all commenting that their network sees the same issues around the same time of day (late evenings), once again I get a call from Comcast saying they want to come out to my house and attach things to the network here. They truly are fixated with the modem & the cable part of their network. And yet they cannot explain how something in my house could:

  1. Affect me only for bursts of time in the late evening, but be fine most of the rest of the time
  2. Affect other people here, and in various other cities in the bay area

Apparently, they just cannot see that this is probably impacting many of their customers. I have spoken to many here who see the issue but don’t have the patience to deal with Comcast’s totally abysmal customer support system. Even when it gets escalated, it appears they cannot get past it being localized to one house.

If they don’t want to look at the data in their routers, perhaps they should try calling some of their customers in the bay area and asking whether they use the network in the late evening regularly, and whether they have seen any issues with it.

Here’s the latest data I sent them:

January 16, 2017 (averaging 37% packet loss in the test):

January 17, 2017 (averaging 18% packet loss in the test):

Also from January 17, the trace showing losses at Sunnyvale again, and from nodes beyond it (likely dropped at Sunnyvale too – something they’ve always said was not happening):

I get it that their network can get loaded; I work in an industry that sees how much data traffic increases month on month as people use more and more high bandwidth services. But Comcast’s only role here is to provide the pipe to the Internet and keep it from being overloaded. I get it that there are huge swings in traffic volume across a 24 hour period; I don’t necessarily expect to see the full bandwidth during peak hours (right now, at 11am on a weekday, for reference, I am seeing about 30Mbps), but dropping to under 1Mbps is unacceptable. And the times when the packet losses are so great that my router decides the Internet is inaccessible are completely unacceptable. Personally, I would say once it drops below 50% of the bandwidth I’m paying for, that is a problem; I suspect they have a lower percentage in mind, but I doubt it is as low as 1%. If they do consider 1% of the contract bandwidth to be acceptable, perhaps the FCC should take a closer look at the service Comcast provides.

Smartwatch Round Up

The recent acquisition of Pebble by Fitbit, or rather the recent acquisition of some of Pebble’s technology & employees by Fitbit, has left me with a bit of a dilemma. There is a blog post stating that “Fitbit is going out of its way to keep Pebble software and services running through 2017.” Of course, that is only 2017 (and who knows what that really means). But they didn’t buy the hardware, so there will not be new Pebble watches. Of course, it seems likely that there will be a future Fitbit watch with some or all of the Pebble software in it (why else would they buy it), but their existing watches are not very attractive to me.

Then, today, as I was walking to the ferry terminal, this popped up on my phone:

I hadn’t changed watches as far as I knew; in fact, I hadn’t even touched the watch. I happened to look at the phone because I was trying to send a text message. Of course, since the watch had mysteriously reset, I did not get the notification on my wrist. Indeed, my watch had reset completely. Also, when I launched the app on my phone, it wanted me to login again. Logging in, got me to what looked like an empty account. It also indicated that my health database was corrupted (all that data is lost apparently).

Slowly, bits of the old Pebble environment came back. Some of the watchfaces appeared in the locker, then apps. But I couldn’t make any of the watchfaces active. Then, a little later I could again.

If I had to guess (and so far I have not been able to get an answer from the @FitbitSupport folks on Twitter confirming or denying this), I would say that somebody migrated a backend and in doing so broke something. Or maybe the app just crashed and corrupted something (not like it doesn’t crash a lot recently). For now it is back (minus the health data), but I am wondering how long for, and also whether anybody will fix the iOS app, or even update it to remain compatible with future iOS updates.

Alternatives

That led me to looking for alternatives. There was Vector, until Fitbit acquired them too (and said there won’t be more Vector watches). So, what else have I found?

Withings SteelHR

The Withings SteelHR is an interesting device in that it really is a watch, but I think I would be giving up too much to go back to something that basically had an indicator for notifications on it rather than showing me some of the text.

I’m also kind of used to having options on the watch face (something that a real watch can’t do), and the option to combine several pieces of information on the one display (currently, I have steps, sleep patterns, analog time & date as well as status indicators for battery life and bluetooth connectivity).

CoWatch

The CoWatch reminds me more of an Android or Samsung smartwatch. It has one feature that really stood out though: Amazon’s Alexa integrated inside.

This one checks all the boxes in terms of flexibility, and I do quite like the idea of a round screen. Where is fails is in the reviews that suggest it is not quite there yet. When I bought the original Pebble on Kickstarter, I was also buying into an experiment to see how I liked the idea of a smartwatch. My current Pebble is the third one I’ve owned, and I am totally hooked on the concept. Going back to a beta level watch, with all the connectivity problems and missing features doesn’t appeal at this point.

Also, much like the Android and Apple offerings, this one basically requires charging once a day. That is something that puts me off having grown accustomed to a once a week cycle with the Pebble.

Martian mVoice

The Martian Watches mVoice is another smartwatch with Amazon’s Alexa integrated (and by all accounts the integration is better than the current CoWatch one). But, like the SteelHR, this is an analog watch with a small screen. While it does look like the screen could handle more text than the SteelHR one, it is still much more limited than getting the text message full screen on my Pebble where I can read it.

It is also only splash resistant which makes it a non-starter for me (in the same way that the original Apple watch is not interesting because I can’t swim in it).

Apple Watch Series 2

That takes us to the Apple Watch Series 2. These are water proof, and they certainly deliver on the smartwatch features (although the lack of 3rd party watch faces is still a little odd given they’re up to version 3 of the OS, and there are already native watch apps).

This one also checks all the boxes for fitness tracking, and I don’t think there’s much risk of them being acquired by Fitbit. But, the price! In black stainless steel (which is what my current Pebble is made of) one of these would set me back $600. With a silicone band. Add another $25 for a third party nylon band. (In reality, I’d probably opt for the black aluminium version at $400 with the nylon band, but still, that’s over double what I paid for the Pebble – in fact, I didn’t pay much more than that for all three Pebbles combined!).

The other big negative on this one for me is the short battery life. Charging daily would require thinking about when to charge it; overnight makes sense, unless you want to use the watch for sleep tracking too, which I have grown to like on the Pebble. In the office might work, but what about weekends when I am not sitting at my desk?

Matrix Powerwatch

The Matrix Powerwatch is an outlier in that it doesn’t exist yet. It is still in the crowdfunding stage over on Indiegogo. Its bold claim is that it doesn’t need charging at all – instead it is powered using thermodynamics from your body heat. Take it off and it sleeps (retaining time etc of course); put it back on and it wakes up.

Given its early stage of development, I am not even considering it. It also isn’t clear what the feature set will be in terms of smartwatch capabilities (the photos all seem to be fitness oriented). But never having to charge it sounds great to me! I had a solar powered watch many years ago and loved that aspect of it. I wonder how good this thermodynamics concept is, but if it works, I think it is a great idea.

Conclusions?

I love the increasing number of options in the space, and I still believe that once you have tried a smartwatch you will not go back (even if it is just for the ability to keep your phone in silent mode and filter the interruptions to just the things you really care about). The Apple option is clearly a strong player, but for a little longer at least I am going to stick with my Pebble I think. If it does get to the point that it really isn’t working, right now I think the only viable option for what I’m after is the Apple watch.

Comcast: Not Resolved

It is holiday season so I wasn’t expecting much to happen with the Comcast issue (and to be honest, I haven’t been online at 10pm as much either to notice it), but on December 30th I did get a call from Mark N. in Executive Customer Relations updating me on the fact that the engineering team had not been able to find anything, and telling me they were closing the ticket. He also stated if I saw the issue again that I should let him know and he would re-open it.

At the time, I commented that while I had not been online at the affected hour (10pm Pacific for those new to this thread) to be able to update him on my experience, I felt it was unlikely to have changed given that it has been ongoing for over a year now.

Then, on January 1st, I happened to be online and notice the typical stalls in video streaming and poor performance in Twitter and Facebook with images & videos not loading. I ran some speed tests and traces too, and got these:

Speedtest results

Notice the chart for the download starts high, and then drops fast to a very low level. That is a bit different to previous results (although this was 10:35pm too, and things were starting to improve, especially the video stream). The average is also much higher than it is at the peak of the problem (where I typically see under 1 Mbps download). But, at other times of the day I see 50Mbps or more for the download speeds, and a nice flat intra-test chart.

Traceroute

The trace shows the packet losses at Sunnyvale though, same as always. I suspect that this is the cause of the fast drop in the speed test too as the TCP window size adapts down to cope with the higher than ideal packet loss.

The burst also explains why my command line speed test script didn’t see anything even when the GUI version was showing degradation. I suspect the command line tool is using only a small file, whereas the GUI version I know adapts how much it downloads to make sure it gets a good average.

Another Report

Tonight, I happened to be on Twitter and noticed this tweet about another Comcast customer in the SF Bay Area having issues, and pointing at the Sunnyvale router:

When I reached out to @Pixel, he got back to me with the comment that he sees issues almost every night too around 10pm ± 1 hour. And he is in Santa Clara. So, now I have reports of the same performance problems from Alameda, Oakland, San Francisco and Santa Clara. But still I get this from Comcast support:

I seriously think that Comcast needs to invest in some training for their support people. When Frank Eliason was running the Twitter support team it seemed to be staffed with people who were on the top of their game. Sadly, that doesn’t seem to be the case any longer.

The same support person however did let me know that the ticket (ESL02794458) had been closed with the comment that it was resolved. Let me be crystal clear now:

I have never stated that the issue was resolved.

The request to close the ticket came from Comcast because they were unable to find anything. As I mentioned above, my response to that was that I felt it was unlikely to have changed since it had been the same for over a year, but I had not been home at the right time to be able to confirm or deny it was resolved. That is most definitely not the same as me reporting the issue as resolved. Furthermore, for the record:

The issue is not resolved.

And, as should be apparent to the people at Comcast by now, I am not the only customer affected by this. I strongly suggest they get their act together and find out what is causing these performance issues. And I would also suggest that perhaps rather than sitting in the Hayward head end trying to find ways to pin the blame on my modem/router/Wi-Fi, they take a trip to the Sunnyvale router’s location and have a look at what is happening there. It seems too much of a coincidence that that one node always shows high packet loss rates when there are performance issues, and not when everything is working OK.

Not Just Traceroute & Speedtest

One more thing I’ve heard is that these tools might not show problems when the rest of the network performance is OK. Let me be very clear on this for the folks at Comcast too:

I only run Speedtest and traceroute when I see other things failing.

More specifically, the applications I have seen failing are:

  • Video streaming from Amazon and Netflix (stalling, dropping down to the lowest quality stream, and even failing to load the catalog on our Roku box sometimes)
  • Media loading in Facebook & Twitter (text loads, but no images, including avatars/profile pics in many cases)
  • Web pages timing out on loading (especially more complex sites like the NY Times, the Washington Post or even the Amazon home page)
  • Video calling (Google Hangouts, FaceTime etc) disconnecting repeatedly

Only when I see something like that failing do I think to run speed tests or traceroute on my home network.

Automation is not Laziness

It occurred to me recently that when I have been doing things around the house that automate something, those activities have often been branded as me being lazy.

The Roomba

The Roomba was the first example of this, though at the time I just ignored the labeling. Having a device that can trundle around cleaning the floors for me without my needing to be pushing it is great. The argument was made that the Roomba was not as effective, nor as fast, as the Dyson in the closet. But that argument is false. On paper, the Roomba clearly does not have the suction power of the Dyson, but it can do the job unattended, meaning the floors are vacuumed more often than they would be with the Dyson. As for the speed, while it does take much longer for the Roomba to complete the job, it doesn’t expend any of my time at all. That makes it infinitely faster from my perspective.

Is it lazy though to push vacuuming onto a robot? I don’t think so. Especially not if I am spending the time I would have spent pushing the Dyson around doing something more valuable. It also impacts the overall quality of life for the family; one less chore that needs to be delegated.

The Dishwasher

Another one the household appliances that was seemingly tagged as making people lazy was the humble dishwasher (though, oddly, I have not heard the same complaint about the washing machine in our laundry room). For me, the dishwasher not only saves my time, it also typically does a better job at getting things clean, and saves on water. Once again, it can run when I am doing other things around the house, or it gives me some time to spend with the kids rather than standing at the kitchen sink washing dishes.

Alexa

Just before Thanksgiving, I finally bit the bullet and upgraded the Insteon hub here in the house to the newer version that can integrate with Amazon’s fantastic Alexa gadget (something we’ve had in the house for a long time now and been using for music, weather, news, shopping lists and more). In addition to the Insteon lights, I hooked up the Nest and August integrations, so Alexa could control the house lights, the thermostats and our front door lock (she will only check the status or lock the door though, not unlock it).

My kids were hooked on the light control immediately, and our five year old has been showing everybody who visits Alexa’s newest trick. But is it laziness to ask Alexa to turn a light on or off rather than getting up and walking to the switch? Or to have her adjust the temperature on the thermostat instead on getting up and adjusting it manually? Of course, in both cases I could also just pull out the phone and use that, and in the case of the Nest, I can even make the change from my watch. I imagine those are also considered “lazy” options.

Is voice control ever useful? Sure! in the month or so we’ve had it, I’ve already used it a few times when I’ve had my hands full and needed a light turned on or off. I don’t think that is laziness; I see it more as improving efficiency.

Oddly, even though controlling the lights or thermostats remotely is laziness, I noticed that controlling the TV without getting up was not considered to be lazy. I wonder if the TV remote control was branded as laziness when it was first introduced?

Smarthome

Right now, I have the basic elements of a smart home, but I don’t think the home is really that smart. Sure, the August can tell the Nest when I go out. The Nest smoke detectors can tell the Nest thermostats when there is a carbon monoxide issue or a fire (and have the heating shut off). The thermostats also tell the smoke detectors when we are out so they can run self-tests without disturbing us.

But I am looking for more. I’d like the August to turn on the lights inside when I unlock the door at night. Or if the Roomba could disable the motion sensors on our home alarm system while it was cleaning, and re-enable them once it was done (so I could schedule the vacuuming to run while we are out without it resulting in the police breaking the door down to check for intruders).

Luckily, for this there are more and more options coming online, connecting the various APIs for each service. All I need now is some time to set them all up. And to keep replacing components in the home with ones that have APIs. I’d love to have our home Wi-Fi router be able to report when certain devices come and go, or trigger other activities based on who is at home, or who is arriving home. Our Apple Extreme cannot do this, but perhaps the next router I buy will have that capability (or something else I can connect to the house will).

Presence (for the future)

The next step I suspect will be to add beacon sensors in certain rooms so the house “knows” which room I am in based on either my phone, or my watch or some other wearable device that I choose to register as synonymous with me being present. Would it be lazy to have the kitchen lights automatically come on, and perhaps have a coffee start brewing when I come down at 6:30am to make lunch for our pre-schooler? Maybe Alexa would even know I walked in and greet me, or start my flash news briefing or a review of my calendar automatically too.

None of this is actually that new. I attended a lecture talking about “smart” badges probably 20+ years ago in the UK. But the age of Bluetooth wearables and smartphones makes a special badge unnecessary. And services like IFTTT make all of the interconnects simple too. We live in exciting times, as long as you think beyond automation being lazy of course!

Comcast: Now It’s The Wi-Fi

Last Thursday I spent almost 2 hours on the phone with a couple of engineers from Comcast. The one who lead the call was sitting in the Hayward head end location, connected to the same network I was using (I’m not sure where the other one was physically located – he was dialed into the call). Around 10pm, we both started to see “anomolies” in the Speedtest results. As well seeing packet loss in the traceroute results from the Sunnyvale router. We also saw longer than typical ping times to Google (normally low tens of milliseconds from my home).

He tried a number of things, but nothing made a difference. Until, at 10:20pm, it rapidly went back to being normal. The pings improved. The Speedtest results improved. The traceroutes started showing responses from Sunnyvale again (and by 10:30pm they were also consistently good times). Unfortunately, it didn’t go bad again that night while we were on the phone, but I was hopeful that having had two of their engineers see what I was seeing there might be a light at the end of the tunnel. I should have known better.

Wi-Fi

During that call there was a question about how I was connected to the network, and we even switched my computer between the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands on my Wi-Fi to verify that made no difference. It did not. Where I live, both bands are pretty clear of interference. Normally I have the two bands using the same SSID, but during the call I switched the configuration so they were separated (allowing me to easily switch between them).

I did also point out at the time that it was somewhat irrelevant since I had seen and documented the problem in many configurations, from many devices, including some of my neighbors homes and even some friends in other bay area locations.

To be clear here, I have seen the problem:

  • On Wi-Fi connected computers (both bands)
  • On Wi-Fi connected mobile devices (both bands)
  • On ethernet connected computers through my router
  • On ethernet connected computers direct to a Comcast-provided modem
  • On both our wired and wireless Roku boxes

Additionally, at other times in the day there is no problem at all from the same computer I was using during the call. Here is a speed test from that same computer taken around 6:45pm this evening, while we were streaming HD video from Netflix on the Roku and a visitor was watching a basketball game on his Mac. As I’ve made clear throughout this, outside of the 10pm to midnight (some days a little later) window, the performance is very acceptable.

That was run from the browser on my Mac Mini connecting to the internet over the same Wi-Fi network. The only difference was I ran it at 6:45pm rather than 10pm.

Home Visit

So, today’s call from the engineering team did not go well. Firstly, even though I saw the slow down over the weekend and yesterday (I was not online at the right times on Sunday or Monday), apparently the equipment in the Hayward location saw none of it.

Furthermore, he now believes that the “anomalies” seen in the Speedtest results during our call last week were related to Adobe Flash and not the network. While I am not going to defend Flash at all, I will say that Speedtest is rock solid, and the versions I am running are not Flash based, so that doesn’t apply to my results.

Finally, it was suggested that perhaps the issue is in my Wi-Fi network and they should come to my house to check the setup in the house. Really. I am not kidding. Once again they are concluding that their network is fine and any issue must be in my house.

When I pointed out that several of their engineers have already been here, and perhaps he should just pick the phone up and call one of them, I was told that they would need to come out to see it themselves. I guess they don’t trust any of their colleagues to check the modem and signal quality.

Once again, Comcast folks, if you believe that something in my house is the cause of this, please explain to me how so many of my neighbours see the same issue. Is my Apple Airport Extreme somehow managing to interfere with them all?

Also, I’m willing to accept that the packet losses in Sunnyvale are coincidence, if you can show me what else in your network could cause so many people in this area to see this issue. And why they correspond so well in terms of time to when the network quality is poor. Right now, when the network is working well, I see this from my traces:

5 be-33651-cr01.sunnyvale.ca.ibone.comcast.net (68.86.90.93) 11.224 ms 16.193 ms 13.003 ms

The only time I see slower ping times or no responses from that node is when all the other things I try are bad too. What are those other things? Well, here’s a list of the things we often see when it is behaving poorly:

  • Web pages, Facebook content, Twitter content and emails not loading;
  • Netflix and Amazon Prime video not being able to load their index screens;
  • If we have the index loaded, Netflix and Amazon not being able to start playing videos;
  • Videos that are playing keep pausing to load, which can take many minutes to recover from, and in many cases times out;
  • Speedtest shows results under 1Mbps for download (compare to the speed above when it is working)

Experience

What I haven’t mentioned to Comcast until today is that I have a little bit more knowledge about Wi-Fi than perhaps their regular customer. Having been working in a Wi-Fi software company since 2003, and even been part of the creation of some of the Wi-Fi standards, I think I am pretty well placed to know whether my Wi-Fi setup here is likely to be the cause.

I have spent perhaps too much time inside shielded rooms helping access point manufacturers fine tune their software to squeeze the maxiumum performance from their Wi-Fi stacks. I am well aware that the 802.11ac system I have here far exceeds the capabilities of the Comcast network it connects to for Internet access.

I have spent too much time connecting to Wi-Fi networks all over the world and running performance tests on them (my wife is regularly upset by me searching for public Wi-Fi to use and test when we are out).

Tonight

Of couse, tonight I didn’t see any issue while I was reading on my iPad (normally I will encounter a period of time when media in particular doesn’t load), and my timed download script didn’t see anything either tonight.

Android 7.1.1 and no LTE on Nexus 5X Phones

I have been carrying a Nexus 5X for a while now, and for the most part I love it. Having a pure Android experience, rather than one with a UI skin forced over the top of it, makes the Android experience very close to the iOS one for the most part in my opinion.

Partly because it is not the only phone I carry, I also decided a few weeks ago to sign it up for the Android beta program. I was already running Nougat (Android 7.0), but I wanted to see what else they were planning in the Wi-Fi space particularly. Everything seemed to be going well until the beta 7.1.1 drop landed on the phone. At that point, I started having problems with Wi-Fi stability and, worse, lost LTE completely.

After a few days of that, and at least one attempt to find where I could send feedback that might be noticed (Google really needs to learn from Apple here and include a dedicated beta program feedback app in the builds), I gave up and worked out how to get the phone out of the beta program. This is one place where Google beats Apple; as soon as I did that on their site, the phone indicated that it had an “update” to revert me to Android 7.0. It was a full install (so all data wiped), but that’s OK.

Missing Backups

At the end of that I opted to setup using a backup. There was the first problem. The latest backup it showed me was from my old Nexus 5. Nothing from the 5X despite it being setup for backups all the time I’ve been running it. No big deal, the Nexus 5 backup will be 90% or more, and the photos (which are all I really need) are all in Google Photos anyway.

The process was as smooth as usual, and in no time I was back to running Android 7.0 and my LTE signal was connected again. Then, it offered me an update to the public Android 7.1.1 release. This had a different build ID to the one I had been running, so I took a chance (didn’t really have much to lose).

Public Android 7.1.1

This is an OTA upgrade, so not a full wipe & it doesn’t take long. When it was done, the phone restarted and my LTE was gone again. Seriously. In a public release of their new flagship OS, LTE is not working on the Nexus 5X device (connected to AT&T). It works fine with Android 7.0 (and previous releases too). It amazes me that nobody at Google had noticed this before they shipped it!

Comcast: Still Fixated by the Modem

Last week’s email to the CEO’s office generated some communication again. On Friday afternoon, I received a call from a lady in their Executive Customer Relations department letting me know that she had reached out to the engineering team the day before, but still had not heard anything back from them.

Earlier today I got another call from her, relaying their answer: that they had installed a parallel modem in the house and then paid for a replacement modem, and that had exhausted their options. I kid you not. Finally, moments ago I received this in a DM from the Twitter support folks, relaying questions from, I assume, the same engineering team:

Good morning. The engineering team is asking if you see the same results with a wired test during the times shown in the screenshots. They also noted that there are no events shown in the node history corresponding with the dates and times pointed out. They also wanted to know if you changed the location of your modem at all recently. Thank you. -FL

Despite everything they’ve been sent, and the fact that the entire recent discussion was initiated by my frustration that they cannot see anything past the cable modem, they are still fixated on it being a modem problem.

So, given this fixation with the modem, here are my questions back to them:

Dear Comcast Engineering,

There is more to your network than the cable modems & headends. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, that link is pretty short. But given your fixation on the modem, and the wiring in my house, despite several of your techs agreeing that it all seems to be just fine, here are my questions to you:

1. Please explain how my modem here in one house in Alameda can be causing packet loss at the 5th hop of the trace, and only that hop (which has been a reliable symptom of this since I first reported it, despite all the modem swaps). Note: that router is located ~45 miles away in Sunnyvale assuming your hostnames are accurate (the node is 68.86.90.93, which, according to DNS corresponds to be-33651-cr01.sunnyvale.ca.ibone.comcast.net); it is neither in my house, nor at the end of the wire my modem is connected to.

2. Additionally, please explain how my modem can also be impacting all the other people in Alameda and Oakland who have so far commented on my Nextdoor and Facebook threads sharing the blog post last week confirming they too see the issue with the internet becoming unusable for periods of time during the late evening.

3. Finally, please include in your explanation how this happens only in the late evening, and at other times the same modem, same wiring and same devices are able to get 50 Mbps download speeds reliably.

Thanks in advance,
John

Sad Day For Pebble

Black Pebble Time SteelYesterday the rumour from the weekend about Fitbit acquiring Pebble were confirmed. Sadly though, the details made it clear that Fitbit didn’t really acquire Pebble at all. They acquired Pebble’s software platform and are offering some of the engineers jobs at Fitbit. The hardware will no longer exist.

That is very sad as the closest thing Fitbit has to a smartwatch is the Blaze, and to be frank it is perhaps the ugliest smartwatch on the market. As the product page makes clear, it is really a wrist-worn fitness monitor first, second and third (though, somewhat ironically for a fitness device, it isn’t water proof beyond “sweat, rain and splash proof”). Then somewhere, much lower in the priority list they added a watch and some basic smartwatch features (answer/reject phone calls and see notifications). No mention of custom watch faces. No mention of third party apps – my Pebble is configured with one button access to my Nest so I can monitor and adjust the temperature in the house from my wrist. And there any many, many more apps for the Pebble platform that allow people to do what they want to with their watch.

I think Pebble have said it before, but they set out to design a watch first. Something that would look good, and work well as a watch. My current Pebble Time Steel looks like a watch. I’m hoping that as well as the platform, some of the design from the Pebble platform will start to appear in future Fitbit, but it is sad to realize that the features supported by my watch will start to degrade over time (either because of changes to iOS, or, as BoingBoing suggests, because cloud support features get turned off by Fitbit).

Fitbit have missed an opportunity IMHO in not taking the hardware designs forward too. Most of the things that I think put Pebble ahead of everybody, including Apple, were hardware features (water resistance, long battery life, always on screen, simple button based UI that actually works). Sure, there were some software features too (the web based developer environment was fantastic, the new iOS app looks great too, and, of course, the choices of third party watchfaces were amazing).

Over the years they had their bad moments too. Support was always a bit of a crapshoot. Sometimes it was great, other times not so much. At the end of the day though, things normally improved (at least until the next iOS update broke them again – which is not Pebble’s fault at all).

Despite its shortcomings, it might actually be time to switch to an Apple watch. After several years of Pebble use (from the original Kickstarter edition, to a Pebble Steel, to a Pebble Time Steel, and I backed the PT2 as well), going without a smartwatch isn’t an option and not having it be waterproof and support basic apps is a non-starter too. So, sorry Fitbit, I’ll be sticking with my One for step tracking, but I don’t need a wrist-worn fitness tracker; I need a smartwatch.