A week ago today, I was up at 6:30am as normal making lunch for my youngest to take to her pre-school. Typically, when I get to the cooking phase I ask Alexa to turn on the “counter” lights, allowing me to see the stove top without using the high wattage incandescent lights in the hood (aside: I must see if I can get LED replacements for those yet). Somewhat surprisingly, she sat for a few seconds and then said that the Insteon hub the lights were connected to wasn’t responding. That happens sometimes, and I get the Alexa app to search for new devices again and it sorts itself out. Only my phone was still upstairs, so I walked over, switched the lights on myself and forgot about it. Continue reading
I’ve had my Apple Watch now for a few months and I’ve become comfortable with it in that time, although there are still things I miss from my Pebble. With the Pebble support waning, and Fitbit not seeming to understand anything about those of us who want a smart watch rather than a fitness tracker, the switch to the Apple Watch came at a good time.
This is a very quick summary of what I like and what I do not like, but I will prefix this by saying overall I am very happy with the Apple Watch experience.
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.
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.
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?
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).
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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?
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!
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.
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!
Yesterday 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.
Update November 7, 2016:
It looks like the Lono cloud service is back online. This was not a normal outage however as their domain completely disappeared from DNS. The bigger question of what they will be doing to ensure that the device works locally, even when the cloud is unavailable still deserves an answer (and I filed a support ticket this evening asking both about the outage & about plans for graceful degradation of service should the cloud component fail again).
A while ago now I backed a project on Kickstarter that was creating a more modern sprinkler controller. That actually wasn’t hard to imagine since the user interface of the one our home’s builder attached to wall consisted of a rotating switch, some buttons and an LCD display which could handle numbers & a few other preset things. Like something from the 1980s.
That project was Lono, and, like most Kickstarters, it delivered late & somewhat incomplete. But the hardware looked good, was dead simple to install & seemed to work. The software less so. Over time, things improved a bit though. I could access the controller, via the iPhone app, from anywhere. Scheduling was added, as was weather and a few other features. I don’t think I saw the truly smart scheduling that was promised, but it was delivering what I needed. Until today.
Today, the Lono died. Well. More specifically, the cloud service behind the Lono died. Now the attractive black & green box on the wall of my garage is essentially useless. Obviously, that is frustrating because I can no longer control my sprinklers, even from home when my phone & the Lono are on the same network. But it frustrates me on another level too. These IoT devices are clearly more powerful when connected to the cloud, but they should not be designed to be dependent on that cloud to do anything.
There is absolutely no reason why the Lono, discovering it could no longer reach its cloud based control center, couldn’t have dropped back to a LAN only mode. Whether the outage is caused by the company failing (which seems to be the case here), or other things (maybe an ISP failing, or being temporarily offline), there really is no excuse for these things to stop working based on their last known settings & reverting to more local control.
I’ve backed a number of different things on Kickstarter & Indiegogo. Typically, while they may have received firmware updates etc, only a couple were really dependent on a cloud based service & only Lono has failed. It does make me think I will be more wary of cloud backed IoT projects in future. Perhaps such projects will need to explain their plans for this scenario. At the very least, it would be good to see they’ve considered this & have some level of “disconnected” functionality baked in.
If they want to truly impress me, they should have hardware design, firmware & app software in an escrow service, with public (or at least customer) release triggered on company failure. Then, maybe, the community could rally around and perhaps continue support for these devices.
Our five year old started Kindergarten this autumn, and since his school is close enough to walk to, I had been planning to walk him every day (at least when it was dry, which is pretty much always in northern California these days). Dropping him off is not just a drop off though; instead they do a “morning read” session where parents are encouraged to stay and read to a group of kids. That was making it hard to get to the ferry on time, so I came up with a solution: the Micro Suspension scooter.
After a lot of online research, I concluded that the Micro Suspension scooter was going to work best for my commute. Additionally, my five year old could scoot it on the way to school with me walking, making his route to school a bit easier too. I was hoping to get it from Amazon, but at the time I purchased it they were not selling the suspension model (they are now). I bought it direct from Micro Kickboard, but oddly I cannot find it on their site any longer.
We’ve had it for several weeks now, and overall it has been working out really well. The kid loves riding it to school, with the handlebars lowered. When we arrive, I can fold it and carry it into his classroom for the morning read session; then, when it is time for parents to leave, I simply unfold it, raise the handlebars and scoot to the ferry terminal. That ride takes a little over half the time it took me to walk, so I arrive in plenty of time for the boat.
Once in San Francisco, it also reduces my time to get to the office by about as much. The final climb up Bryant St I walk, but the rest of my route I can scoot easily. It is also saving me a fortune since I can’t ride it and drink a Starbucks, so I am bypassing the Starbucks completely and just drinking the office coffee instead (sorry Howard; if it is any consolation, the coffee I drink at the office is normally Starbucks Verona).
The combination of the large wheels & the suspension makes light work of even the bumpy San Francisco sidewalks. While not as smooth as some of the early reviews I read, the suspension helps a lot over the worst of the bumps and does not impact the handling at all as far as I can tell.
There is nothing really bad about the scooter. The only things I would say that could be even slightly negative are: (a) the weight of the scooter, for when you need to carry it, (b) the brake.
The weight was not more than I expected up front, and the suspension model does incur extra weight that could be skipped easily by simply getting something like a Micro Black or White instead, but carrying it too far would be tiring. On & off the ferry, or into my kid’s classroom is not a problem.
The brakes issue might be caused by the long, steep downhill from my office to Embarcadero in SF. Riding down the hill I tend to have the brake partly on to regulate my speed, and that seems to be causing some uneven wear on the rear wheel:
I don’t think it is causing any problems right now, but I was not expecting the brake pad to cause such uneven wear for sure.
Maybe this is not a common thing for folks to do with their phones these days, but I have a few numbers programmed into my contacts that include access codes, or similar, to be dialed after the main number. Some of them are conference service access sequences, one is a calling card from my home VoIP provider (CallCentric) that lets me make international calls at VoIP rates (a fraction of what AT&T would charge me if I just dialed direct from the phone) and one connects me to my mother’s SIP line in the UK via a service called SIP Broker, giving me free calls to her even when I am on my mobile phone here.
While I certainly could remember all the access codes, PINs and even my mother’s SIP number, it is much simpler to just program them into contacts so they are dialed automatically. This has worked beautifully on all my iPhones to date and even on my Android phones. Until iOS 10. When I first upgraded my iPhone 6s to iOS 10 GM, I noticed that the tone replay was much faster. I also noticed that SIP Broker was having trouble understanding it sometimes (I would estimate around 25% of the time). When the iPhone 7 arrived though, that failure rate jumped to 100%. I could not get these numbers to dial at all unless I did it manually.
I believe the tones are long enough on iOS 10, but I suspect the gaps between them are too short. That is somewhat confirmed by the fact that adding a pause between each digit allowed it to work (but it took nearly 30 seconds to dial the number!).
Analyzing the Tones
Since the tone replay is audible, I fired up Audacity on my Mac and simply recorded three phones replaying the tones to access the CallCentric test number via a local SIP Broker PSTN gateway:
(415) 594 0355,*462,17770000001
On the iPhone 7 (running iOS 10.0.2), the trace looked like this:
You can see from there that the gap between the tones is very, very short. In fact, just 5-10ms compared to a tone time of around 200ms. This reinforces the belief that it is the gap that is the problem.
For comparison, here is iOS 9 running on an iPhone 5c:
This one has slightly longer tone periods (about 250ms), but the gaps are much, much longer at around 100ms. That is 10x the length of the gaps on the iPhone 7.
Finally, I tried my Nexus 5X running Android 7 to see whether they’d had the same idea of reducing the gaps, but no, the Nexus has both longer tones (over 300ms of tone) and longer gaps (around 150ms):
What Does the Spec Say?
So, there was always a chance that this is something that an engineer at Apple, for whatever reason, decided they could adjust to make their tone replay feature more compliant with a standard specification. Indeed, there is a specification for DTMF (pdf) from the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). In that specification there are defined minimum durations for both the tone and the pause between tones.
The tone duration is defined like this:
Where the DTMF signalling tone duration is controlled automatically by the transmitter, the duration of any individual DTMF tone combination sent shall not be less than 65 ms. The time shall be measured from the time when the tone reaches 90 % of its steady-state value, until it has dropped to 90 % of its steady-state value.
The pause duration is defined like this:
Where the DTMF signalling pause duration is controlled automatically by the transmitter the duration of the pause between any individual DTMF tone combination shall not be less than 65 ms. The time shall be measured from the time when the tone has dropped to 10 % of its steady-state value, until it has risen to 10 % of its steady-state value.
So, that iPhone 7 time, looks to me to be well below the minimum pause time!