Saturday, January 29, 2011

What is the big deal about net neutrality

The debate about net neutrality is quite a heated one at the moment. This recent article from explains why many of the original innovators behind the establishment of the internet think that it is important that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are forced, by law to respect the neutrality principle. However, many other people would argue that the exact definition of net neutrality is not clearly enough defined to be incorporated into law and having too much government regulation is a bad thing. These people argue  that it would be better to allow companies maximum freedom to innovate in meeting their customer's requirements and that market competition will solve most issues.

I don't claim to be an expert in this area. I am mostly in favor of network neutrality principles, but I do see some merit in both sides of the argument. Here are my thoughts on the matter:
  • Market forces  can only be relied upon when there us genuine competition in the market. I am lucky enough to live in an urban area of a well developed nation, so if my home broadband provider started to place any unreasonable restrictions on my network link I would not hesitate to switch to one of their competitors. However, I know that many other people are not so lucky and do not have any choice about whom they get their internet service from. 
    • Whenever a company has monopoly on providing such a vital service, it is only right that the government should impose rules about how the service should be delivered. 
    • In addition, any company which places restriction on how their network is used should make this information visible to customers before they sign up because many companies tie new subscribers in to long contracts and it would not be fair it the consumers don't learn about the limitations on a service until after they sign-up.
  • One of the topics in the debate is whether or not it is acceptable for certain companies to pay extra to ensure that their traffic gets priority delivery. 
    • Personally I think that if companies are willing to pay extra for a premium service then I don't see any reason why companies should not be allowed to provide this service so long as they don't do this by downgrading the service to the regular customers below what they had paid for.  
    • Of course very few ISPs currently provide any guarantee about the level of service. If you use a site like  to test the actual performance of  your internet link, you will see that you rarely get the speed of link that you though you paid for. The speed advertised by the ISP is normally the maximum theoretical speed of the link. 
    • I think that ISPs should be forced to advertise the average or minimum speed offered. If this was done, then they could be allowed sell premium services to companies so long as this did not cause the service to their normal customers drop below the agreed level. 
  • Another topic of the debate is whether mobile service providers should be forced to follow the same network neutrality standards as regular ISPs. I understand that it might be expensive to build a mobile network which is capable of delivering full unrestricted internet service. 
    • I don't see any problem in allowing companies to try build a profitable service that is attractive to customers with limited disposable income (an increasingly large market segment) by providing devices which are capable of accessing only a limited number of sites/services. However, it is important that people know exactly what they are buying and therefore the companies should not be allowed to advertise that these devices have an internet connection.
Maybe some of my opinions are naive. I would love to hear what other people think.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Tethering my mobile phone - a cheap alternative to buying a USB 3G card

I have often considered purchasing a 3G broadband stick to use with my laptop when away from home or office, but the reality is that my potential usage level have never justified the spend because I don't really travel very much. However, I was recently stuck in a place with no WiFi and time to spare so I thought I would try tethering my mobile phone (i.e. using my phone's 3G data connection to connect my laptop to the internet) - I was amazed how easy it was.

In the past I was put off trying this because, the instructions I read online  made it seem very complicated. Then I remembered hearing that one of the benefits of updating my phone to Android 2.2 is the fact that it is supposed to make this much easier.

Here are the steps I followed:

  1. On my phone I opened the "Settings menu" and then the "wireless & networks" sub-menu. About half way down there is an option "Tethering", when I opened this I saw a check-box labeled "USB Tethering", but the check-box was not enabled.
  2. When I connected a USB cable from my laptop to the phone the check-box immediately became enabled and I clicked on it.
  3. I then turned my attention to my laptop to see what I would need to do to configure it to use this connection. However, before I had a chance to do anything I saw a pop-up notification saying "network connected via USB". Straight away I was able to browse the internet and even connect to my employers VPN. I could hardly that it was so easy. 
I should mention that I was using Ubuntu on my laptop which is famous for its ease of use - the instructions for Windows or MAC users might be more complicated. Although I didn't run any formal speed test in the link it was not noticeably slower than my normal broadband. Of course I had a strong signal (4 out of 5 bars) and I might not have been as happy with the speed achieved if I was on the edge of the network coverage area - but this would be the same if I had invested in a USB stick.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Harnessing the fun factor to bring young people into contact with the Lotus Products

I am delighted to see that Lotus are making special efforts to connect young students during the upcoming Lotusphere event. The Lotus community is very vibrant and the people who work with the Lotus products tend love them and be very loyal. However since Lotus products are not really aimed at the consumer market, many young people who are studying computer science are not even aware of their existence.

The Lotusphere conference which is happening next week in Orlando, Florida is the biggest event in the year for the Lotus community. It combines education and fun in a way that really helps build enthusiasm for Lotus products.  Normally this event is only attended by people who are already working with Lotus products, but this year a special initiative is being undertaken to help connect with the next generation of IT professionals - we are expecting over 500 students from local universities to attend Lotusphere on our special college day 31st of January,

In addition a special Xpages contest for students is being run in conjunction with a business partner. Because of all of the great results from the Hackdays inside IBM I am confident that we will get great results from this contest.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The video industry is currently in transition from 2D to 3D in much of the same way as it transitioned from b/w to colour over half a century ago

The stories from the consumer electronics show that was recently held in Las Vegas indicate that the industry is investing heavily on 3D video technology. However, many consumers (including myself) are very skeptical about the transition. Although many cinemas are proudly boasting about the many new movies that they have available in 3D, the quality of the experience is not brilliant. Part of the reason that the electronics manufacturers are getting excited about 3D is because the cost of the equipment is dramatically higher. I think that most consumers will be waiting for the price to reduce and quality to improve before they decide to invest. In addition there is hardly any content available for 3D devices (not surprisingly because who would bother producing content that nobody has a device capable of consuming it).

At first glance you might think I am pessimistic about the chances of 3D video taking off, but since I am old enough to remember the transition from black & white TV to colour I can see many parallels.

  • I was a young child in the 1960s. At this time cinemas had completed the transition from black & white to colour and virtually all movies were released in colour. This is similar to the current situation where 3D is taking off in the cinema, but not yet in homes.
  • When I was young, colour TV had been invented, but very few people had purchased them because the cost was so much higher than the black and white version. Most TV stations broadcast the bulk of their content in b/w format with only occasional programs in colour (partly because very few of their viewers would notice). This is similar to the current situation where some but not all movies are available in 3D format.
  • Gradually all TV stations converted to colour broadcasting and consumers gradually converted to colour receivers. However even up to the 1980s they had to take into account that a significant number of viewers would be watching in b/w format e.g. if a football match was being broadcast between two teams who had jerseys that looked similar in b/w one of the teams would be asked to change. I wonder how long it will be before a movie will consider it OK to have a key plot line that would be missed by anyone watching in 2D!

Therefore I think that 3D video will eventually catch on, but the transition will take decades rather than years. After all, I don't think that it is possible to purchase a black & white TV anymore.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

I have two selfish reasons to be delighted that Alexander Amini won the overall prize at the young scientist:

  1. He is a local boy from Castleknock College (although he only recently moved to Ireland)
  2. His mother Lisa is a colleague in IBM
I tried a few times to see Alexander's project when I was at the exhibition yesterday, but I was not able to get near the stand because each time I came by he was busy talking to judges - I should have realized then that he was in the winning for a big prize. I will try meeting him again today, but in the meantime here is a short video of him talking about the project.

Friday, January 14, 2011

My favourite project from the BT Young Scientist Exhibition

I will be helping to run the IBM stand at the Young Scientist exhibition tomorrow and so I decided to drop in for a quick visit this morning to check how things are going. I have been to this event many times and so I should have know what to expect, but once again I was blown away by the energy and excitement of this event.

Smart Helmet with built in Arduino
I had a very quick look at the projects and, one project which caught my eye was  "Cycle helmet with built-in sensor controlled indicators", which was the work of a second year student in Gonzaga College. This project involved adding some sensors and an Arduino micro-controller to a cycle helmet so that the helmet could automatically detect when the cyclist was going to turn left or right (by the inevitable tilting of their head) and automatically turn on the indicator lights. In addition the helmet included a gyroscope which was used to detect when the turn was completed and the indicator lights should be turned off. The final touch was the addition of an accelerometer whick controlled the braking light.

I think that this is a really useful gadget which I would use (unfortunately he is not in a position to accept advance order yet), but what really impressed me was how such a young student was clearly very well informed about the technology scene. When he found out that I knew about Arduino devices he immediately launched into a discussion about the limitations of the USB interface on the board (the quick summary is that it doesn't quite match the formal interface specification). He also gave me pointed to some web sites for buying components and advised me on how to tackle a project I am planning with my recently acquired weather station.

DISCLAIMER: I did not get a chance to see all of the projects (or even a small proportion of them) so there may be many better projects - I will await the results of the formal judging which will be announced this evening.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Why the colour of you USB connectors does matter

Recently I was one of the lucky IBM staff who received an updated Laptop. The current policy is to supply software developers with a W510 Lenovo Thinkpad. Unfortunately, the employees getting these new laptops have not been totally happy. While the laptops are very powerful and have impressive specifications, most people (including me) have experienced some problems. It seems the laptops do not work smoothly out of the box and the users need to spend some time updating their BIOS and device drivers to get their laptop working satisfactorily.

When I got the laptop first, one of the things that puzzled me was the fact that two of the USB connectors at the side were blue while the third one at the back was yellow. Initially I thought this was simply a matter of aesthetics, but after a while I noticed that some devices behaved differently depending upon which colour port I plugged my device into.

I did a little bit of research on the internet and it seems that this is not just an arbitrary colour scheme. The blue USB ports implement the new USB 3.0 standard. Although this new standard offers the promise of dramatic increases in speed, there are not many devices in the market yet which use this standard. While USB 3.0 should be mostly backward compatible with USB 2.0, the yellow USB 2.0 port is supplied just in case there are any incompatibilities. In addition, the yellow connectors also have a neat feature in that they allow you charge up you USB devices even when the laptop is turned off (see here for details).

Many people seem confused by the different port colour and not everyone sees exactly the same behavior depending upon their BIOS configuration  (e.g. this query in the Lenovo forum). My own personal observations are as follows (your own mileage may vary):

  • If I have a USB mouse or keyboard plugged into the blue USB port when I turn on the laptop it will fail the power on self test. However, if I plug a USB mouse or keyboard into these ports after the laptop has booted they will work fine.
  • If I have a bootable USB key the laptop will only boot from it if it is plugged into the yellow USB port.
  • My mobile phone can be charged from any of the USB ports, but it seems to charge up much quicker when I plug it into the yellow port as compared to when I plug it into a blue port (this seems to conflict with some information on the web which implies that USB 3.0 has higher power capabilities)

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Why I was wrong - Loc8 codes are a great idea

Ireland is pretty unusual for a developed country in that we have no system of national postcodes. Although the government have being discussing the introduction of postcode system for the last few years, but the discussion doesn't seem to be getting any closer to reaching a conclusion.

Loc8 LogoIn the meantime an enterprising company from Cork have invented their own post code system called Loc8 and they are actively promoting its adoption as a de facto national standard. To quote from their new web site "Loc8 Codes are the first and only All-Ireland Digital Address Code which is a smarter form of postcode. You can now easily find an exact location anywhere on the island of Ireland".

I looked at their web site and was quite impressed by the very sensible system that they are proposing to algorithmically transform between latitude and longitude coordinates and a post code string which is easy to remember. However, my inner geek was disappointed with the lack of detail provided about how the transformation was done and the company seemed to have the attitude that since they provide a free and easy to use conversion utility on their web site they didn't need to tell people the details of how the conversion was done. I was further outraged when I clicked on the link to their terms of use document - although I didn't read it carefully I was surprised to see a lot of legal jargon setting out restrictions.

I recently wrote on my blog about how Loc8 codes were basically a good idea, but that their restrictions were unreasonable for any proposal that hoped to be adopted as an official government standard. One of the people behind the company responded to blog post pointing out that do not in fact place restrictions on the use of Loc8 codes. The restrictive terms are in fact merely restrictions on the use of the aerial images from the Ordinance Survey office that they use on their webs site (and these restrictions are outside their control anyway).

A closer reading of their legal documentation made it clear to me that I was wrong in my interpretation. I am happy to admit my error and publicly state that I have been converted into a fan of this proposal.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

A post code system for Ireland

I read an article in yesterday's Irish Times which spoke about the post code system that they say will definitely be launched by the end of 2011. While I think that a system of post codes for Ireland would be a great idea, I am sceptical about the likelihood of it being launched this year. Part of my skepticism comes from the fact that there is no clear agreement on how the new post code system will work, but also I have heard such confident predictions about a post code system before. For example, this news item from RTÉ which was written in 2005 an confidently predicted that Irish postcodes would be in operation by 1st of January 2008.

The current proposal is that the post code system  will start with a number of letters identifying the nearest town or city. This proposal has generated a backlash from the Irish language supporters who are insisting that the initial letters in the post code should come from the Irish name for the town rather than the English name for the town - in many cases these would be the same but Dublin/Baile Átha Cliath is a high profile example where they differ. In addition, if the system was to be adopted I can easily envisage a situation whereby small towns could be campaigning to have their own initial letters rather than being lumped in with a rival town.As a result I think that any system based upon place names is doomed to failure and disagreements. Instead we should ensure that the post codes are based upon latitude/longitude coordinates. This is especially relevant in the modern world where SatNav systems are almost ubiquitous and all work of of lat/long coordinates. For example the LOC8 system being pushed by Garmin has the general right idea in that they have a simple algorithm that converts between lat/long coordinates and a more easy to remember alphanumeric post code.

The one big problem with the Loc8 system is the fact that they are treating the algorithm to convert between post codes and the coordinates as a trade secret. I think that the company behind the Loc8 system is very foolish to take this attitude because they would make more money from their technology if the government were to adopt it as the official post code system, but there is no way that the government could endorse a postcode system whose workings were kept secret. . As I mentioned the algorithm is quite simple and so it would be trivially easy to reverse engineer the algorithm given a few sample coordinate/postcode pairs and the details that they provide on their web site. However, my understanding is that the company behind the Loc8 system would sue anyone that published the details of their algorithm - they don't charge people a fee to convert, but their policy is that the only way to do the conversion is via their web site.