Join The Devicescape Beta

So here is what I’ve been working on for past few months… a service that helps you login at wireless hotspots. What is the big deal there you ask? Well, from your laptop it is only a small inconvenience to jump through a hotspot’s sign-on page, but on a phone like the Linksys WIP300 it is impossible normally since the phone doesn’t include a web browser.

With Devicescape’s firmware in the phone, you can walk into a hotspot (currently a US T-Mobile location, any FON hotspot worldwide or Google’s Mountain View municipal network, with more to follow soon), switch on and start making calls using your Gizmo or other SIP account.

Want to try it? Sign up at http://www.devicescape.com/, download the software for your device (currently supported: Windows XP, Windows Mobile 5, the Linksys WIP300 and the Nokia 770 web tablet), enter your account info and roam around town. Remember, it’s a beta so if you encounter problems be sure to let us know and we’ll try to fix it.

Broken Windoze

Ooops...Seen a lot of in-store equipment recently that has crashed and is either in the state shown in this photo where Windoze is trying to reboot and failing, or it is stuck trying to install/upgrade something.

Seems that people still haven’t learnt not to rely on Windows for something that needs to keep running, although in the case of the Dell console at Costco I guess they could be forgiven there since they’re selling Windows boxes. Hope the ones they sell keep running better than the console though 🙂

Digital Rights Management

In an article titled Music lovers caught in DRM battle, on the BBC News web site there is a quote from one Brad Duea, the president of Napster, where he states:

So we try not to view the DRM as something that limits consumers but instead enables them now to take all their music on the go.

I don’t know where he’s been living, but the last time I checked my legally purchased (on CDs), but non-DRM’d music worked just fine in my portable music player (an iPod). I don’t see how adding DRM would enable me to do anything more with that music than I do today. I can see how it would let me do less…

Now, as someone who works with intellectual property (both as a software engineer and as an amateur photographer), I do not agree with people using IP without permission (a license). There are a few problems with DRM technology though:

  1. When the licenses become more restrictive (as many software licenses are today), then people will find ways around them. If music becomes as restrictive as software, which it would seem the DRM technologies are moving in the direction of, then more people will circumvent them and piracy will increase, not decrease.
  2. DRM technologies will only restrict what honest paying customers can do; those intent on pirating the music will always be able to get around the DRM.
  3. Having multiple DRM technologies, and multiple audio formats will mean that consumers will be forced to stay with one hardware vendor. If my iPod breaks, I have to get another one because nothing else will play the songs I buy from iTunes. Or I can pay for the music again in a different format.

The current situation is not good for anybody. There will always be people who copy music (and software, and photos and other forms of intellectual property). Some of the recipients of those copies might actually like what they hear and buy it, or buy other things from the same artist. Remember the music industry hated radio and the cassette tape when they appeared, but long term I would say they have been good for business (and we won’t even get into the movie industry and the VCR). Sharing music is a form of promotion. The majority of the people who don’t buy more music having heard some for free, wouldn’t have bought it anyway. Either they didn’t like it, or they couldn’t have afforded it in the first place.

If the music industry was feeling brave, they might like to try something like the shareware software scheme: they could make some of their music available, unprotected and in MP3 format, perhaps at a lower bit rate than most people would use. This has a couple of key advantages:

  1. It acts as a great promotional tool (try before you buy always works well with IP). Consider this to be radio for the iPod generation.
  2. It reduces the need to pirate the songs since they are available legitimately for free, thereby taking some of the pirate’s market away.

Perhaps software like iTunes and WMP could read a tag from these unprotected tracks and display an upgrade button in their library browsers. Press the button to buy a higher quality version of the track, or a different version of the track. Buy enough and you get bonus tracks; or buy five upgrades, get five upgrades for free; or whatever – the possibilities here are endless, if only the industry has the guts to take a chance on it rather than circling the wagons and trying to annoy their most loyal customers in an effort to prevent people who were never their customers from doing what they’ve always done, and will continue to do regardless.

Of course, they’ll never do it as it would be too radical a move for what is at times an oddly conservative industry. Unless one of them does it… Sony: you’ve been bitten by DRM, how about it? How about trying something different, and a little revolutionary?

Gizmo Update

Gizmo ProjectI have been using the Gizmo Project client on my Mac for several weeks now and mostly I am impressed. I did get a Plantronics DSP500 USB headset which is both comfortable and clear. That made a big difference compared to using just headphones and the built-in microphone (using both built-in microphone and speakers is a bad idea – too much echo for the person on the other end of the line who gets to hear everything they say repeated back on the line).

Mostly, I have been making trans-atlantic calls with it and have found it to be very stable for a beta release. There have been a couple of updates (including one that restored the ability to record calls on the Mac). The only real problem I have had is with their ecommerce backend. It has been down a couple of times now so the client believes that you have no credit and won’t let you make call-out calls (i.e. calls to the PSTN). It also won’t let me buy $20 of credit at the moment. Couple that with the fact that during the beta you can only buy one block of time each week, and it could be annoying, but in fact the $10 lasted over two weeks.

I am also working with VoIP at work at the moment – porting the open source VoIP PBX software Asterisk to run on one of our wireless access points. You can read all about this work on the Devicescape blog, including a mini-review of a Wi-Fi VoIP handset from ZyXEL.

Devicescape Software, Inc.

Today, Monday January 17, 2005 marks the day when Instant802 Networks, the company I joined around 18 months ago, becomes Devicescape Software.

A few people around the SF bay area might have already caught sight of the yellow sweatshirts sporting the new company marketing device (they were handed out at a private launch party last Thursday held at the Bubble Lounge in San Francisco). The photo on the right is a clue as to why the rotated letter ‘e’ is the ‘icon’ over the name. You’ll find similar shots on the new website, though perhaps none as good as this one 😉 That said, next time I will remember to clean my keyboard before taking photos – you can see the dust on the top of the power button if you look closely! [Hint: you’ll probably want to click on the photo to get the larger version before looking for this.]

Ritz PV2 “Single Use” Cameras

For a little while now people, myself included (though intermittently due to other committments), have been working on getting the newer Ritz PV2 cameras unlocked so that they can be used as cheap digital cameras. This is not so much because they have stunning image quality (most, if not all of us have much, much better quality digital cameras already). Part of it is for the challenge. For me though there was also an element of being able to give a cheap camera to a couple of young kids I know and have them play with photography.

The PV2 is ideal for this since it has an LCD (enabling them to see the photo they’ve just taken immediately), it is cheap (no real loss if it gets broken), it runs on standard AA batteries and it was designed to survive well enough to be recycled by the store (and they are in a pretty tough plastic case).

Recently, there has been a bit of a breakthrough and the camera can now be reprogrammed a little bit so that an easily available Windows (and Mac OS X for that matter) driver can read the photos from them and reset the counter to zero allowing the camera to be used again. You can get more information about this from a number of places:

I’m sure I’ve missed some. Almost all of those pages have links to other sites though so keep following them. There’s a lot of information out there. The I-Applicance forums are perhaps the most up-to-date, but they can be a little difficult to follow these days since there is so much activity there.

Election Technology

I decided not to comment on the political aspects of the latest US Presidential election in my blog, but one thing that has been bugging me for the last few days is the poor quality of the technology that they use to collect and count the votes in what is their most important election.

Firstly, there were all the debates about the lack of a paper trail on the fully electronic machines. I don’t even know why this was a debate. It seems to me to be obvious that a paper receipt should be printed. It is odd that nobody debated this for ATMs or lottery ticket machines, but when it comes to something as important as voting there is a question about the need for a receipt.

Next, a couple of my colleagues voted using the optical scanner machines. They did get a paper receipt, but not one that verified that the machine had read their selections correctly! The California lottery terminals work on a similar scheme (you fill in the circles with a pen and machine ‘sees’ those marks), but the lottery folks felt the need to not only print your selected numbers on the receipt, but also to remind you to check them before leaving the store. Why was this basic step missed from the optical scan voting machines?

Then, today I read an article at Wired about machines in North Carolina losing votes because they could not hold as many votes as the manufacturer (UniLect) claimed. So, why did the machine not stop accepting votes when the limit was reached? My ATM manages to stop trying to hand out cash when it runs out; the same ATM will tell me that it is unable to issue a receipt when it runs out of paper too. How come this basic resource monitoring was not part of the machine’s design? That’s not the end of it though. Why was the machine not tested by the county officials before the election? Surely, testing the maximum number of votes it can hold is one of the acceptance tests?

Don’t get me wrong, I think that fully electronic voting machines are the way forward, but I also recognise that there needs to be a proper audit trail and proper controls over who has access to the machines and the software that they run. A number of web sites (e.g. http://www.thudfactor.com/voterfraud/) have shown how easy it is to rig an election using an electronic machine. What was not stated so clearly was that it is also possible to design one that with appropriate testing, and a proper audit trail, can do the job fairly. Here’s my simple list of requirements:

  • A printed duplicate receipt with details of the selections made, and a transaction number. One copy goes to the voter, the other is kept in the machine, much like a cash register in a store.
  • The software needs to be separate from the data that describes the choices that can be made. This means that the software company cannot know in advance what the choices will be, nor the order in which they will be displayed.
  • The machines need to be thoroughly tested before every election, using the exact software that they will be running on the day, and the exact data set that they will be using. If they contain a real time clock, it should also be set to the same date and time as the start of the election (to avoid the possibility that the software will change its behaviour based on time & date information).
  • The machines should have votes entered into them until they stop accepting votes. Also, they should stop accepting votes if the receipt paper runs out or anybody tries to tamper with the machine during the election.
  • Finally, at the end of the testing the paper copies of all the votes should be counted to see whether they match the electronic count.

The advantages of electronic voting are obvious – touch screens that can display information in a number of languages as well as walk the voter through the election one choice at a time, rather than presenting them with a form to fill in, should make it much less likely that the voter will accidentally make the wrong choice. It is up to the software industry to make them demonstrably reliable so that the voters will trust them. Maybe this is one case where importing a machine might be a good idea too (that way the manufacturer will be less likely to have an interest in the result of the elections it will be used it, something that was clearly not the case with at least one US manufacturer).

Comments?

Fake iPod Generation 5

Fake iPod Generation 5An article at Gizmodo talks about the fake iPod shown to the right. They provide a link to the full size ‘ad’ image too which includes a spec. While this is clearly a joke, I would have changed a few things to make this more realistic:

  • Drop the Dragonball CPU in favour of a high speed ARM or XScale CPU, perhaps with Jazelle Java acceleration technology built in.
  • With such large hard drive, there’s no need to have so much flash, but at least 256MB of RAM would be handy. Perhaps even more.
  • For wireless support, include 802.11n Wi-Fi or even WiMax for always-on wireless access (at least in metro areas, where one or both of these technologies might be used to light up a whole city).
  • Add USB host support to get the photos off my camera and on to that HD while I’m travelling. Better still support for doing this over a wireless link, but that requires my camera supporting Wi-Fi or Bluetooth – and the one I have now doesn’t have either option 🙁

They are spot on with the OS though. There is no reason at all, at least not once you move to a real CPU, to have a port of the BSD/Mach based Mac OS X on a handheld device like this. I run the Familiar distribution of Linux on my iPaq which has a much lower spec than even today’s PDAs and it works just fine. NetBSD proves that BSD can be ported to many platforms (they claim more than Linux, though that must be getting close now). Why not have Mac OS X on a handheld?

[If folks over at Apple are reading and like the idea, perhaps I could do the port for you – I have been porting operating systems to embedded platforms for much of my career!]

Software Patents

It has been a busy week for the patent lawyers out there who are trying to extort money for what they claim is an invention, but is in reality only another arrangement of binary bits in the memory of a computer.

Top of the list, at least in terms of headline grabbing appeal, was the Eastman Kodak vs Sun case over Java. Kodak, the company known for photographic products, attacking one of the premier server companies, Sun, over a freely available object-oriented programming environment, Java? Yes. Seems that Kodak gained three patents when it acquired Wang Laboratories a while back, numbers 5,206,951, 5,226,161 and 5,421,012. These relate to certain aspects of object-oriented programming, and a jury in Rochester, NY decided that Java infringed them. Kodak was planning to ask for over $1B in damages. You can read more about this in an article at Groklaw.

In a surprising turn though, Sun has settled with Kodak out of court for $92M (less than a tenth of the damages Kodak was asking for). So, what some were hoping would become the test case that got software patents off the books again, seems to have escaped quietly.

In other patent news, Acacia, a company of lawyers that buys patents with the sole intention of “enforcing” them to make money, has acquired a patent from LodgeNet it believes it can use to extort money from wireless hotspot owners. An article at Wi-Fi Networking News has more information on this one. This is one of two patents in the area of browser redirection, the other being held by a company called Nomadix. Many believe that both of these are essentially worthless though as there were other browser redirection systems up and running before either one was filed with the patent office. One such claim comes from Jim Thompson, former CTO and VP of engineering at Wayport, who claims that Wayport had their portal up and running before the LodgeNet patent was filed. He also goes further in claiming that the idea is ‘obvious to one “skilled in the art”‘ – i.e. something that does not belong in a patent in the first place.

It is not all bad news though. Much less widely publicised was pubpat.org‘s success in getting all claims in the Microsoft FAT patent rejected in a re-examination. So, if you know of a patent that is clearly bogus, especially one for which there is well documented prior art, send all the information you have to the folks at pubpat.org and perhaps they can get it overturned. Even better would be to get the whole concept of software patents (and their close relatives the process patents) back off the books, but I don’t think that is likely to happen without a high profile test case, like the Kodak vs Sun one could have been.

Running Linux on an iPAQ

IBM has posted an article on its developer site about running Linux on an iPAQ.

I have had my iPaq, a 3835 model that I picked up cheap in an online auction, running Linux for a couple of years now. My installation is now a bit out of date, but it runs happily with my Linksys compact flash Wi-Fi card in the sleeve. It is a little bulky by comparison to the newer models (mostly because of the need for the sleeve to get the CF slot).

If you have an iPaq that you no longer use on a daily basis, either because you have moved on from the whole PDA scene, or simply because you have upgraded to a newer model, running Linux on them can be a fun experiment. Not something for the novice yet though.

If you want more information, check out the excellent resources at handhelds.org. You will find all the software you need there to save your PocketPC installation and install Linux, as well as detailed instructions for every supported model.