WiFi As Urbane Renewal

Since I moved here, I have found that there are two things that get Californians excited: free parking and free WiFi. Even better, how about places that offer free parking within a few feet of having free wireless access. The only thing better would be laptops with built-in cup holders for your lattes. Wait a minute, isn’t that what the CD drive is for?

Two years ago the City of Long Beach was one of the first to jump on this trend, and enabled free WiFi in a four-block area along Pine Street, one of the more pedestrian-friendly and restaurant-laden spots in the area. Then they turned on free WiFi at their airport, which has become a busy cross-country hub since Jet Blue started flying there and American had to match its service levels.

Read the complete essay here.

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Using 911 with VOIP telephony services

I asked computer consultant Martin Focazio to share some of his thoughts and research on how VOIP services make use of the 911 emergency telephone network

Basic telephone service is, by far, the most advanced technology that people use every day. While it seems that everyone has a cell phone and voice over IP these days, the reality is that cell phones and VoIP still have quite a way to go before they can do some of the neat tricks that ordinary switched phone service can do. 

The best way to see how much more cell phones and VoIP have to learn from the “old-fashioned” telephone networks is to look at how 911 calls are handled. When you dial 911 from your home phone all sorts of cool things happen. 

First of all, your call is routed to a special phone switch, one that only carries emergency service. This switch is connected to a database of the physical location of the phone wires that were used to originate the call, and the dispatcher gets the address of the caller on the screen. Sometimes there’s even a map of the location, and in really fancy systems, a map and routing data is transmitted to a computer in the emergency vehicle. In many systems, the 911 operator can “seize” the line – preventing other calls from coming in, and keeping the line connected even if the caller hangs up. The 911 calls go to a Public Safety Access Point (PSAP) – the place where 911 operators and dispatchers work to assign and direct emergency service workers. 

However, these Public Safety Access Points also have to deal with calls from cell phones and, more recently, VoIP calls. To say that the public safety agencies are dissatisfied with VoIP is putting it mildly.

In both cases, these neat technologies seem to be everything “ordinary” phone service is and more. But they are not quite the same in important ways. 

There are two key differences that really matter.  The first is that cell phones and VoIP calls are routed via ordinary telephone lines, through non-emergency phone switches. When you call 911 via a cell phone, your call is often run to an office telephone system that happens to be at the PSAP. While there’s considerable effort and progress on handling 911 calls from cell phones effectively, they are still the bane of the dispatchers day. They often have to re-key your phone number and try to guess or figure out your location, leading to exchanges like this: 

Cell phone caller: “I saw an accident on the road.” 
911 Operator: “What road?” 
Cell phone caller: “I don’t know” 
911 Operator: “Where are you now?” 
Cell phone caller: “In my car” 

Some primitive, slightly effective cell phone location systems are being rolled out, but GPS does not work indoors, and triangulation is – at best – an iffy proposition in urban areas. 

For VoIP the situation is more complex. For most VoIP carriers, 911 calling is a for-pay option. (See for example the service offered by Vonage here, which is included at no additional charge.)

This brings the very real possibility that a VoIP customer would not be able to dial 911 at all in the event of an emergency. However, buying 911 service on a VoIP account is not actually giving customers real 911 service. 

Remember the neat little tricks that a 911 operator can do with real 911 service – like get instant address data, hold a line open and so forth? 911 calls placed on most VoIP providers is routed over ordinary phone lines to an ordinary phone system at the PSAP. In some cases, the call is not even routed to a PSAP, it goes to what amounts to a call center, where an operator will try to figure out which PSAP is supposed to handle your call. For a long series of horror stories of VoIP 911 call problems see www.911dispatch.com 

VoIP is, in many ways a great example of fancy features over-riding core functionality and stability. While it’s great to have 3-way calling, caller ID, call forwarding and all these neat add-ons with a VoIP service, this can’t obscure the fact that neat features on top of an incomplete base of functionality can be a – literally – fatal flaw.  I’m reminded of MS-Word, which is smart enough to intercept my keystrokes and offer “help” when it detects that I’m writing a letter – but it still crashes more than I want when saving a document. Clearly, flash has outstripped function. 

The point of all of this is not to say that VoIP and cell phones are a bad idea – they are not. But they are far from ready for mass deployment, despite the increasing numbers of people planning to use only cell phones and VoIP for their primary service. If a new technology comes along proposing to improve on an old one, don’t forget to look at the really hard parts of implementing the old system and realize that these parts – the deep, complex and critical aspects of the technology are some of the most important features – and ones that can’t be left out.

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Srivats Sampath and Atri Chatterjee of Mercora

Tired of listening to the same old top 40 tunes on your radio? Want to do something with all that Internet bandwidth available on your computer? Don’t want to deal with buying new music until you have really listened to it? Feeling guilty about making copies of your friends’ MP3 files? If you answered “yes” to these questions, we’ve got great news.

Tune in to my audio interview (what you thought this was text?) with the executives behind Mercora here.

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Mitch Kapor

I had a chance to catch up with Mitch Kapor over the past week. Kapor is one of the founding lights of the modern PC software industry. He was at the helm at the beginning of the Lotus Development Corporation in the early 1980s and saw his applications run on the earliest business PCs. He was responsible for many seminal software projects, including 1-2-3, Agenda, and Notes. I can remember using the first version of 1-2-3 to build various mathematical models for the companies that I worked for back then, and still have my slipcase of the software and original 5.25 inch floppies (not that I have a PC that has any floppy drives on it anymore, but it is nice to have these early touchstones of technology).

Kapor had a broad vision of where he wanted our industry to go, and wasn’t afraid to use his influence and wealth to push us along. He was one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation back in the early 1990s when legal issues in cyberspace such as privacy and access to online information were largely uncharted territory. Before becoming the chair of the board of the Mozilla Foundation, he was a venture capitalist and had numerous other charitable efforts.

Today, Kapor is running the Open Software Applications foundation, building a new product called Chandler that will focus on using open source methods for personal information management.  He took time out from his schedule to exchange some rather pointed emails with us about where he has been, what it has been like competing with Microsoft, and where open source software is going.

Q: I think our audience would love to hear what your views on when you use open source versus when you develop with commercial software.

A: Let’s distinguish between products you use and projects you undertake.  For the former, it feels too purist to say “I will only use open source.” Sometimes the best tool for the job happens to be proprietary. At the same time, being thoughtful about trying to assemble a working set of open source tools seems totally reasonable. Linux-based desktops, for instance, require a fair amount of upkeep. Is it worth it? And compared to what? These days, so does a Windows desktop, with all of the virus and spyware problems. Personally, I use a Mac as I don’t want to be my own system administrator.  On the other hand, if you are already a sysadmin, the incremental effort to do it for yourself is a lot less.

In creating a new project, I think you have to look at your goals. If it is possible to create an open source solution, then good, but I don’t think you can assume that it’s always going to be possible. If you’re trying to build a business around the project, then you have think through how you expect to get revenue. Sometimes a consulting and service model will work on top of an open source code base, but not always.

Q: Firefox has become its own operating system, and dare I say, way of life. Have we reached the end of the line where reasonably technical people can admin their own desktop browsers?

A: My experience of setting up Firefox has been different and better. It has been straight-forward, a matter of a few clicks at most to get Flash, Real Player, and perhaps a handful of other extensions installed and working.  his is an enormous improvement from earlier on in which I was just unable to get all the pieces I needed installed and working to support pain-free viewing of the web sites I visited. As they say, YMMV (your mileage may vary).

That said, wouldn’t it be better if Firefox came bundled with a Flash player, etc., or its installer detected a need for customary extensions and could install at the same time? There’s no technical reason why it couldn’t happen.

Pragmatically, I think we have to distinguish between a base set of extensions and everything else. It gets progressively more difficult to create seamless solution when there are nearly infinite possibilities for customization and tweaking of settings. There’s a basic tension in principle which can never be completely resolved. Even so, there is still considerable room for improvement, but it will take a increased emphasis on usability as integrated into the development process for maximum progress to occur. There are a host of techniques and practices for working on usability, but the skill set to do so is a specific one, and usability specialists have to become an integral part of the open source development process. See http://www.flossusability.org/ for details on a Free/Libre/Open Source Usability Sprint.

Eventually, the uses of metadata (emerging from today’s rapidly evolving baby steps of XML, RDF, tags, microformats and the like) will become sufficiently sophisticated that programs will be constructed express what they need to work successfully in a way there can be automated dialogs, (largely) self-configuring software, and automatically high-level constructed high-level configuration wizards for advanced users which will tame the beast. This is a vision and dream, not imminent reality, but I am impressed with recent developments. The year 2005 might be the year of metadata.

Q: You have been a competitor of Microsoft’s for more than 20 years. What is Microsoft doing right with respect to the Internet and what is their major weakness?

A: The biggest weakness is that they do not have a business model which is well-suited for the coming era. Will Microsoft try to force users to adopt new proprietary standards and  in Longhorn? It will be tempting for them to try to do as as a way to preserve their hold and they may have some considerable success. I think ultimately such moves will fail, as the collective power of openness and the superiority of open source economics is too great. See the paper “Coase’s Penguin” by Yochai Benkler. (http://www.benkler.org/CoasesPenguin.html)

Microsoft has never intended to compete on a level playing field. Instead they have tipped the field to favor themselves, sacrificing product quality and user benefit over and over again. This strategy is coming to the end of its useful life.

When motivated, however, Microsoft can develop powerful technology, especially if it sees itself as playing catch-up in responding to competitive threats, as they did in bringing Internet Explorer to parity with, and then beyond, the Netscape browser in the 1990’s.

Q: As we go beyond 3 GHz CPUs, doesn’t writing better code make a more compelling case? And not just for gamers and video editing, but for general office applications?

A: I think there are advantages to writing better code beyond speed of execution, e.g., maintainability. Far more time is spent dealing with poorly structured code than is justified by taking the quick and dirty approach.

Q: The browser has become the defacto user interface for many applications, both professional and consumer. Does this mean that software developers who write interface modules are getting lazy or getting better at providing more usable code?

A: The rise of the browser as an application interface is generally a good thing. Services like Google’s Gmail and others show how it is possible to improve usability to the point where running an application in a browser is no longer like writing with the brick tied to a pencil. I expect that the trend of UI improvements for the browser is going to continue to accelerate to the point of parity with desktop UI for many classes of application. It will simplify application development a lot, and this is a good thing.

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Desperately Seeking Wireless

So I am on the road, covering the RSA conference at the Moscone this week, and I am awash in wireless connection options. The only problem is, none of them work everywhere that I am, and all require some effort to enter the correct information. I am beginning to think that this wireless stuff is over-rated, and maybe that ole cat 5 isn’t so bad after all.

You can read more of this tale of woe here on Tom’s Networking.

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Linspire’s Michael Robertson

Michael Robertson, music’s bad boy CEO, is at it again, causing trouble for music publishers, Microsoft, and just the overall Computing Establishment. The CEO of Linspire (formerly known as Lindows until Microsoft’s legal team had their way with him) has come out swinging with new enhancements to the company’s operating system, adopting a pay-as-you model to download Linux applications. The fervent hope: to make Linux into a desktop operating environment that anyone, including your mother, could use. And to use Linux as a wedge to get back into making a better digital music experience.

We spoke to Robertson at his annual Destkop Linux Summit show in Del Mar, California last week. “My original vision for Lindows was not to create an operating system but to create the CNR warehouse. So we adopted the CNR model and said we will do for Linux apps what we did for music.” CNR stands for Click-and-buy: it is a catalog of various Linspire-ready applications that are available, some for free and others for a small fee. You merely bring up a Web browser, click on the application that you want, and once you register and provide your payment details, you can download at will. Think of iTunes for software, and you aren’t far off.

“We quickly discovered [several years ago] that all of the Linux versions at the time were awful for consumers and in such a sorry state. It was a mess, a disaster. And we realized that you pretty much have to control the OS to make CNR work with any kind of reliability. So we were forced into the OS business.”

Over the course of the 20-minute interview, which you can download the audio recording <here>, Robertson was at times jocular and caustic. Linspire ships with a built-in suite of Office-like applications that can read and write Microsoft file formats, along with their own Web browser based on the Mozilla code base. “I love that people are just wetting themselves over Firefox, that is just great. We have been saying that Mozilla is better for two years, and finally the world has woke up to Firefox.”

Earlier in the day, Robertson was the featured keynote at the conference. While he began his keynote 30 minutes late, he immediately moved into a high-energy pitch: “People won’t say I am crazy anymore. We will show you the enormous distance that we have come.” He made fun of Linux’s shortcomings by showing pictures of early software screens and saying “back in the day, we didn’t have a screen capture program. We had to take pictures of the screen with an actual camera.”

Robertson introduced a beta version 5.0 of Linspire to the theme of the Hawaii 5-0 TV show. Clearly, this riff went over most of the audience’s heads, but the bouncing jingle still caught hold and was received warmly by the crowd of about 500 people attending the three-day conference.

“This is the product that Linux needs to go mainstream,” said Robertson. He promised that it will be shipping within the next month. He claimed that Linspire 5.0 was “at feature parity with XP,” and crowed, “Microsoft hasn’t put out a new version in three years and probably won’t for another three.”

The new version sports significant enhancements, including better wireless and Windows networking support. We were able to boot the beta on one of our Gigabyte laptops and be up and running within 15 minutes, with just a few mouse clicks and without having to resort to the Linux command line to make any real adjustments. On another white box it also recognized the hardware and ran effortlessly. The biggest drawback was a lack of printer support, but it does come with numerous printer drivers

The companion announcement to the new Linspire version is a new set of tools to download and organize digital music. These included a new Web-based music store, a new music appliance, and synchronization software to transport your songs between various music players, PC music applications, and new audio gear that run over wired and wireless networks in your home. Clearly, this is Robertson’s focus.

During the keynote, Robertson demonstrated a new site called Mp3Tunes.com that charges 88 cents per song. The site is operated by a separate company and he is also the CEO. The biggest difference between this site and numerous other music sites is that there are no restrictions on how many times you use the mp3 downloaded file. Robertson called it buying, rather than renting, your music.

“I didn’t like the direction that the music world was going,” he said during his keynote. “We decided for no DRM [digital rights management]. I wanted something so that my sons would find it easy to get music and listen to it anywhere. We need to push the world to an open standard, and that is MP3.” In our interview, he elaborated: “The only way you can get consumers to accept DRM is if you force it on them. And if you get your music via file sharing or by buying a CD, you don’t have any [usage] restrictions. And these options aren’t going away. We aren’t going to stop selling CDs for a few decades, and file sharing is going to be with us for a very long time.”

Interestingly, the startup of Mp3Tunes.com is déjà vu all over again for Robertson, who started the first mp3.com download site in the mid 1990s before selling the operation to a music publisher, after “building it into the largest mp3 music site in the world.” The site currently offers over 300,000 song titles “probably from no big name artists” said Robertson. “But that is okay, because people have plenty of CDs.” Clearly, what Robertson is banking on is to make the easiest system for consumers to manage their music libraries, and by removing any DRM restrictions (iTunes, for example, limits how many times a consumer can download a particular song after paying for it by requiring each computer to be registered to a particular user) and supporting a range of music devices and software programs.

At the center of this music ecosystem is a low-cost application called Mp3Beamer. This is another application that runs on top of Linspire and can turn any PC into a media ripping and storage unit. At the show, reseller sub300.com was demonstrating SFF white boxes that they built with the Linspire software. They could quickly rip and catalog music CDs with no operator intervention.

As part of this effort, Robertson’s crew has also written some code that works on both Windows and Mac versions of iTunes, allowing you to synchronize your songs that you download with the  Mp3Beamer. During the keynote, Robertson demonstrated songs that were ripped from a CD to the Beamer box, and then transferred to Windows and Linspire PCs as well as an iPod and a cell phone.

The Beamer box represents to Robertson the beginning of a new direction for consumers to “have lots of dedicated computers around you servicing your needs. Where we differ from Microsoft’s vision is on two fronts.  First, I don’t think you have one machine that does everything in the world. I think it is the opposite, with lots of machines that are dedicated to specific tasks and do them well. The future holds lots of appliance devices. Second, it is all about – for us – open standards and open formats. “Whatever device you use, we gotta give you an interface to your music,” he said during our interview.

Ironically, one of the open formats that he has embraced is Universal Plug and Play, enabling various media devices to work with the Beamer and his system. “Microsoft still doesn’t support UPnP in their media center edition, but we support it in our beamer.”

Robertson has gotten older and wiser in the intervening years since he first launched mp3.com. “I think the record industry has had a real changing of the guard. With almost every record label, old management is out and new management is in. It isn’t a coincidence that suddenly Apple could get a license to sell every song for a dollar. The record labels have come a long way.”

Will Linux become the desktop for the masses? We’ll see how stable and capable Linspire 5.0 is. But in the meantime, Robertson is once again challenging some established notions and striking out in some promising directions.

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Confessions of a grey-hat networker

It is getting harder to tell the good guys from the bad these days. Life up to about last year used to be so simple. There were white hat networkers and black hat networkers. The white hats are the ones who try to gain entry into your network with your permission, to stress test your security and pinpoint vulnerabilities. The black hats are mostly the bad guys. But now we have grey hat networks, the ones that aren’t so easy to characterize as evildoers.

I guess this mirrors life, where nothing is black and white anymore (at least outside the perspective of our own president, but don’t get me started on that). These grey networks are becoming more common as corporate IT staffs do their best to stem the tide of peer-to-peer, instant messaging, and other incidental applications that have become mission critical to some of their users. The reason they are called grey is because while they are still far from the accepted corporate standard portfolio of “approved” applications, they are useful and in common use across the corporate network.

Actually, the problem is not new. You can read more about it here.

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Moving Off Notes To A Wide Open Space

When I took the job with Tom’s Hardware, I had to make the move off of Lotus Notes for my emails and contacts. Here is how I did the deal.

You can read the entire essay here.

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Network Computing

This print magazine begin September 1990 and is published by CMP Media. Many of the staff is still in the networking industry, or with CMP or the magazine itself after all these years. I was its first editor-in-chief and built a series of “real world test labs” that were co-located at mostly academic computer science campuses.

Here is the site for the online edition of the magazine.

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Google’s Desktop v1.0

As I get older, I tend to forget where I put my stuff more and more. I used to think of myself as a fairly organized person; that is until I lose track of something and am frantically searching around the house, or my hard drive. I really try hard to be organized, really I do.

Having said this, the notion of a new piece of software from Google called Desktop is right on target. It indexes and searches your hard disk with the same speed and agility that Google does for the greater Internet. It works with Microsoft Office documents and emails from Outlook and Outlook Express, and AOL Instant Messenger conversations.

Google Desktop isn’t perfect. It opens up privacy concerns, especially if you are using a shared desktop and don’t have physical control over who accesses the computer. This is because it stores previously viewed Web pages, including Webmail pages. It also stores previously copies of your documents and deleted email messages. It doesn’t index anything other than text files and the Microsoft and AOL IM items mentioned earlier, and only runs on Windows XP and 2000 machines.

Still, this is a pretty active product space right now, and there are a number of competitors who are aiming carefully here. One includes Microsoft, who recently purchased Eric Hahn’s Lookout (from Lookoutsoft.com) tool for examining Outlook documents. Google Desktop doesn’t look inside attachments, and doesn’t index anything other than email messages – if you make use of Outlook’s notes, journal and to-do entries, contacts and other organizing items, then you are better off with Lookout than Google.

Others include X1.com and Copernic.com search tools, both of which index a large list of file types and can also examine the content of email attachments.

What none of these products have is integration of desktop and Internet search in the simple and usable Google display, and that is the not-so-secret sauce here. When you search for something, you can see results from both your own files as well as what is out on the Internet at large. That has the possibility of changing how we look for content, and it also means it is harder to lose track of that critical file. Even for this middle-aged semi-organized kind of guy.

You can read the entire article here on Network Computing’s Web site.

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