Another Kind of Phone

Here’s another interesting phone-over-Internet approach that also works over existing telephone lines: the PhoneGnome.

This is how it works: A user connects the PhoneGnome via an ethernet cable to his of her home network, and to a PSTN wall jack using a standard telephone cable. When the PhoneGnome powers up, it automatically reports in to a server to let it know it’s online and what its PSTN phone number is. That’s the entire scope of the basic installation.

Once installed, when the user dials a telephone number, it checks with the server to see if that number belongs to a registered PhoneGnome user. If it does, the call is made directly via the IP network, bypassing all PSTN toll charges.

The PhoneGnome also works with non-PhoneGnome accounts like BroadVoice, VoicePulse Connect. In a nutshell, the service seems to straddle the best of old-style telephony and the best of the new — including the public SIP protocol.

I’m not clear whether the PhoneGnome works overseas; I see no reason why it couldn’t.

The Wi-Fi Revolution And Smart Homes

It always amazes me how many home Wi-Fi networks there are. I don’t do a lot of sniffing, but wherever I am I take a look and there they are, whether it’s a Jakarta towerblock or rural England. Wi-Fi, it seems, is as commonplace as any other kind of connection. And now market research company Park Associates seems to have confirmed it: More households, at least in the U.S., have set up wireless networks than cable, or Ethernet, ones:

This study, which surveyed consumers in Europe and North America on technology adoption and use, found 52% of U.S. households with a home network use Wi-Fi and 50% use Ethernet. By comparison, only 32% of Canadian households with a home network use Wi-Fi, 43% use Ethernet, and 26% were unsure which technology they were using.

No mention is made of European homes, but from what I can see, the rest of the world is not far behind. Interestingly, Park Associates credits the bundling of Wi-Fi kits by cable and telephone companies selling broadband service for the surge. Their hope: to bundle other ‘next-generation’ services using these networks, since they are supposedly easier to distribute via Wi-Fi than Ethernet. In short, the Wi-Fi explosion could bring the smart home a step closer to reality.

Our Nasty Internet

It sometimes boggles my mind at how messy and nasty the Internet has become.

The Canberra Times (no URL available, can’t find it on their website) quotes Peter Tippett, a member of United States President George W.Bush’s Information Technology Advisory Committee and chief technologist at Cybertrust, as telling a media briefing in Sydney last week that in the first six months of this year “the proportion of total e-mail traffic classified as malicious – including spam and phishing – rose from 20 per cent to 85 per cent.”

What does this mean? Well, for one thing it means that most folk trying to download the Windows XP SP2 update without already having a firewall in place didn’t stand a chance: “In a test undertaken in 10 cities last month, Cybertrust found that only 40 per cent of new computers were able to download a Windows update before they were successfully hacked.” Says Tippett: ”The average time before a successful hack is under an hour on an average high-speed Internet connection in the world today.”

We have got to find another way of doing all this. The Internet has become one, big, bad neighborhood. Ordinary folks just shouldn’t have to be vulnerable when they plug in.

(Tippett, by they way, recommends setting up a wireless network. He plays down the dangers of sniffing and eavesdropping and plays up the fact that over 80% of attacks can’t get through a netted router. ”If you did only one thing for home security, you should add wireless to your home network,” said Tippett. I’m certainly no expert, but wouldn’t adding any kind of router that has NAT, or Network Address Translation, built in do the same thing for you? Why does it have to be Wi-fi?)

WiFi Whackiness

WiFi is all very well, but I’d argue it’s still too tricky for us ordinary mortals to figure out. I’ve just spent the best part of a day trying to get a LinkSys WRT54G Broadband Router installed in my home network, and it took my resident genius Akbar to figure out that the cable provider had hardwired our setup so we had to try to trick the router into taking on the old address.

At least, that’s what I think happened: All we got from the superfast installer wizard was ‘You’re not connected to the Internet’ as we idly surfed the Web waiting for the wizard to complete its pointless and fruitless checks. Anyway, it’s working now, and it’s great, but I think LinkSys (and everyone else, for that matter) could do a better job of preparing us for oddities we’re likely to encounter.

Bill’s Vision Of Our Home Future

Bill Gates gave his big speech at the 2004 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) yesterday, and there’s been plenty of commentary on it. Here’s a view from WinNetMag’s by Paul Thurrott, that helps explain why the computer is more likely this year to make its way out of the den and into the living room. It all revolves around the Media Center PC, a PC running a new version of XP that works as a kind of hub for all your other entertainment devices. (Yes I know this doesn’t sound new, but it seems more likely to happen this than before, apparently):

With a Media Center PC connected to a TV signal in the home office, you’ll soon be able to pump content to other devices around the home. These devices will include set-top boxes that look and act like stereo components and be able to connect to a home network through a wired or wireless connection, a new generation of portable media devices, shipping this year from several companies, playing music, running movies, downloaded material, that are “small enough to fit in your pocket, has a big enough screen to enjoy movies, and is about the same weight as a wallet”, according to one of the Microsoft guys.

As Paul points out, a lot of this could actually happen because Microsoft has involved a vast number of partners to build the machines, make content, sell the stuff to you, movie companies to make the specially formatted DVD movies you could download. Concludes Paul: “The level of cooperation Microsoft engenders with its partners stands in sharp contrast to the digital-hub strategies that some of the company’s competitors have proposed and highlights the true diversity and choices we expect from the PC industry. Seeing this business model coming to the consumer electronics industry is exciting. If Gates’s keynote address is any indication, 2004 is going to be a milestone year for home computing.”

I’m more conservative: I haven’t seen this stuff in action, and given past experience I’m not 100% convinced that folk can be persuaded to buy new hardware that is not compellingly better (folk will buy a DVD player because it’s clearly better than VHS; the same was true with CDs and vinyl; tape Walkmans and MP3.) But buying a lot of new hardware just so you can beam material from your PC to the rest of your house? Are we really going to do that? I’m skeptical, but ready to stand corrected.

Connect USB Gadgets To Your Network

This sounds useful, and is one of those things I would have thought was already available: a USB server. Say you’ve got a network and you want to share your USB devices with other folk on the network. At the moment you could do so, if it was a printer, or a hard-drive, but it would have to go through your computer, and things could get pretty bunged up. Keyspan reckon they have the answer: Today they will unveil their USB server in Las Vegas, which will allow users to hook up to four (Mac or Windows) USB devices — printers, hard drives, scanners, modems, etc — on a wired or wireless network for the princely sum of $130.

As they point out, it could be very useful for Wi-Fi addicts, who, like some of my home network users, like to move their laptops around a lot and don’t want to be encumbered by annoying peripherals jutting out of their USB ports.

Are Computers A Waste Of Our Time?

Here’s a story to illustrate a conundrum: If computers are such productivity boosters and time savers, how come we spend huge amounts of time trying to make them work? Marshall Brain, a writer, former teacher and consultant, tried to figure out how much time we spend on fixing computer stuff but timing it: Last month he spent 11 hours and 20 minutes solving computer problems, from fixing Mom’s printer driver (1 hour) to solving a daughter’s Christmas trauma resulting from a bad Cheerios game CD (15 minutes).

Now first off, that’s a lot of time, but I’d say not surprising. I run a small home network and am forever trying to get things working (even the Wi-Fi seems to have a life of its own.) But is it acceptable? Marshall compared it with his house repairs for the same month: replacing 2 light bulbs, zero problems with the car. “In other words,” he concludes, “there is nothing else in my life that comes close to the time being spent maintaining the computers in my home.”

So who’s to blame? Marshall has some suggestions. His main target: Microsoft. “Personally, I feel that a good bit of this waste and vulnerability is caused by Microsoft. Even more that Microsoft has the resources to fix the problems.” I think he’s right. While he also takes aim at boring and complex user agreements, dealing with spam and installing drivers, I feel that Microsoft, as the dominant software player in practically every field, has cavalierly ignored the problems that users have to deal with. Marshall points to the need to reboot after installing many different types of software — which if removed could “save the nation millions of man-hours per year”, the silly procedure for loading drivers (I still don’t understand exactly what Windows is searching for when you allow it to search for drivers; it never finds them unless you tell them which directory to search in, which is a bit like playing hide and seek with all the closet doors open).

I’d add my bugbear: software bugs. Microsoft, I suspect, just doesn’t fix most of the bugs that it finds. When I asked a senior MS guy about this, complaining about some Word bugs that haven’t been fixed for years, he said I was “missing the big picture”. But if I buy Word for that feature, surely it should work? That’s my big picture: I use that feature (large tables for big chunks of text) and it’s supposed to work. Who should I be sueing if it’s not fixed (answers on a postcard, please.) My suspicion is that we waste a lot of our time not just fixing stuff, but working around stupid bugs that, somehow, we’ve accepted.

As Marshall concludes in his post: “The amount of time we are all wasting on our computers right now is unacceptable, and our machines are far too unreliable.” Which brings me to my final question: Just how productive are we in the face of all this repair time? Are computers wasting our time?