April 5, 2010 8:22 AM
Posted by: Craig Mathias
, National Safety Council
Looks like I spoke too soon in my recent posting on safety. I just found this excellent White Paper from the National Safety Council that should really get some of your always-in-demand attention, and soon, especially if you think it’s OK to talk on a phone, hands-free or not, while operating a motor vehicle. The evidence is clear and the arguments, as far as I’m concerned, are now over. We now need to decide upon appropriate penalties for those who do damage of any form while talking and driving. I think these should be harsh so as to set an example to discourage this kind of behavior. Yes, all of us who run small mobile businesses are really, really, busy, and time management is critical. Multitasking, assuming your brain is wired so as to enable it, is a good thing. But our first duty, as businesspeople and especially as citizens of a civilized nation, is to the fundamental safety of each other. Successful civilizations are built on an ethic of trust. It’s time to reaffirm this ethic by banning the use of mobile phones while driving. Period, again.
April 2, 2010 6:50 AM
Posted by: Craig Mathias
, notebook PC
, tablet PC
As I write this (yesterday, on the first day of April, and no, this is not an April Fool’s column!), I’m sitting here amazed at all the coverage the iPad is getting. There are stories on all of the news and business TV channels, it’s on the covers of major magazines, and it’s getting serious exposure on blogs and other online media outlets. Think about the last time a consumer electronics product got this much drool-laden coverage (hint: another Apple product, a handset). Two thoughts come to mind here. First, this is probably the first tablet computer in history that really has a chance at major-league success. It’s not too expensive, it’s based on proven technology, it’s part of a family that gives it instant access to lots and lots of software and applications, it’s well-designed, it’s cute, it’s fun, and it’s from Apple, which is thought number two. If there were a Nobel Prize in Marketing, it would go to Apple. These guys are simply flat-out amazing. But part of the marketing success is simply due to our own expectations: we are pre-disposed to Apple’s success. Such is practically cultural now. If Apple does it, it must be good, and most often (but not always) it is.
Now, I personally take issue with the closed-system nature of Apple’s non-Mac products, and Apple’s tight control over the use of their products. I can’t imagine that it’s even legal that they restrict access to applications. But, hey, if you don’t like it, don’t buy it, but there’s obviously enough to like that Apple will have no trouble meeting their expectations for iPad sales. And I don’t think there will be a single competitor that will provide a real challenge to Apple in this space. But, then, just how big is the tablet space, anyway?
Pretty big, actually, as we’re talking consumer electronics here as opposed to the computer market alone, and the price of the iPad is right to capture a lot of it. And some analysts have even become so enamored with the iPad (think even more drool) that they’re saying that this device will replace e-readers, like Amazon’s Kindle, and then proceed to render the very notebook PC obsolete! Come on – this is just plain silly, the ravings of adolescents suffering from their first encounter with puppy love. The notebook will be around for a very long time, well past the foreseeable future. The notebook’s integral physical keyboard is key (so to speak) – any serious typing on the iPad will require Apple’s optional physical keyboard, thereby creating a two-body solution that’s clumsy to transport. The familiar clamshell design of the notebook is its major selling point. Tablets are better in some applications, but not all, and will likely not be mainstream in business computer for, well, ever.
Like its little brother, the iPod Touch, the iPad is fun device. Get one for fun. I will. You might even get a little business done on it, but just a little. You’ll still reach for the notebook when there’s work to be done.
March 30, 2010 8:01 AM
Posted by: Craig Mathias
There is only one issue that can derail the broad and continual adoption of wireless devices and technologies, and, to be blunt, that’s whether cell phones cause cancer. I often run into people who are quite literally frightened of radio energy, particularly at community meetings where a new cellular tower is on the agenda. They bring their kids, and talk about how the wireless industry seems to be running a big, uncontrolled experiment on all of us with potentially very dire consequences. Should we be concerned?
Yes and no, but mostly no. You have to consider that we literally have over a hundred years of experience with wireless, and, if a definitive connection between exposure to consumer-grade RF energy and any adverse health impacts existed, we’d almost certainly have seen it by now. On the other hand, as anyone with a background in formal logic theory knows, it’s impossible to prove a negative, so no one will ever be able to say that RF energy absolutely does not cause cancer or other problems. Indeed, note that I included “consumer grade” in the wording above. There are plenty of RF emitters that can and do cause great harm to living entities, and quickly, with improper use or exposure – or human error.
And, to be fair, we’re still gaining experience with radio, so it is fair to say that problems may become apparent in the future, especially as usage grows and total cumulative radiation levels correspondingly increase. Even so, I personally do not believe that a smoking gun, so to speak, will be found here. My personal advice is to be prudent but not paranoid. Minimizing personal exposure is that kind of prudence, but, let’s face it, we’re exposed, in technological societies, to all kinds of radiated energy every day. That technology enhances our lives. Suppose we do find a link, again to be blunt, between cell phones and cancer. What would we do? A warning label, perhaps, as is the case with tobacco? Restrict their use? Ban them entirely? Ban other intentional electromagnetic radiators, and maybe the unintentional as well, thus outlawing essentially anything consuming electricity? The impact to the global economy and standards of living would be dire. Personally, I’d rather die of cancer when I’m 80 than shivering in a cave when I’m 30.
I continue to monitor this issue. So far, after reading over 200 papers from scientists, engineers, and government officials, I’m quite comfortable with working in wireless and using and recommending wireless devices. It’s been widely noted in the press that a rumored report from the World Health Organization at some point that may really turn up the debate here, so I’m sure we’ll re-visit this issue again (please note that I have a policy against spreading rumors, but the importance of this issue merits an exception). In the meantime, though, I’ve always said that I’d find a new line of work if a definitive connection between exposure to consumer-grade radiation and any adverse health impacts (in humans) of any form is ever established. I do not expect to be changing careers anytime soon.
But, on the other hand, there is a real, established, proven connection between using a handset while driving, talking or texting or whatever – and collisions (note that I don’t want to insult anyone’s intelligence by calling these events “accidents”). I favor banning the use of any form of electronic communications while operating a mobile vehicle, hands-free device or not. Period. People really are getting killed here, practically daily, and there’s no excuse for this kind of disregard for human life. As the bumper sticker says, drive now, talk later.
March 25, 2010 8:20 AM
Posted by: Craig Mathias
, standard handset architecture
, Windows 7 Phone Series
I was thinking the other day about Palm, and how the round-trip in their stock price reflects my original skepticism of the webOS strategy that hit the streets in January of last year. Some analysts are even now saying that Palm is an absolute zero-dollars-a-share crash-and-burn; I don’t see this and instead believe they will be acquired by an Asian firm for the value of their installed base (not worth much) and brand (worth more, but still not much). Anyway, I think the Pre and Pixi are terrific phones that are now available at bargain prices. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them to consumers and smaller firms, and even larger firms that won’t be developing custom apps for them.
But, still, how come we remain in the era of proprietary and even somewhat closed (this means you, Apple) architectures and implementations? Why does the handset market mirror the PC world of 1985? The PC ultimately achieved a degree of standardization, thanks in part to Microsoft’s dominance of the OS space, that is today universal. You can run Linux on a PC (if you’ve not tried Ubuntu, do so – it’s so amazing on every machine I’ve installed it on that these guys really deserve the Nobel Prize in software), and you can even, with perhaps questionable legality, run the Mac OS on a huge range of PCs, resulting in the so-called “hackintosh”. I’m sure Microsoft didn’t have opening the door to competitors and easing their way in mind when it monopolistically published its specs for what the hardware must be to run its substandard, overpriced operating systems, but we’ve all ultimately benefitted from that move.
So how come no industry consortium has come forth with a viable specification for handset hardware standardization? Such a standard would of course include a broad range of requirements, optional features, and hardware extensibility mechanisms, and then allow essentially any compatible OS – which would almost certainly be based on the only OS that matters, Linux – to run? Sure, we’d still have the semi-closed, proprietary products from RIM and Apple, and maybe a few others, but such would open the door to apps for all (with much larger markets for developers), a greater degree of investment protection, and likely lower prices. How come enterprises aren’t clamoring for this? I think small mobile businesses would jump all over this idea.
I would think even Microsoft would be behind such an effort. It might even save Windows Mobile, um, I mean Windows 7 Phone Series, which is in very deep yogurt otherwise.
March 23, 2010 7:15 AM
Posted by: Craig Mathias
, radio technology
There is no technology more important to wireless than MIMO – which stands, by the way, for Multiple Input, Multiple Output. We’ll get to what that means in a moment, but I want to correct a misconception up front: MIMO is not just about wireless LANs, specifically those based on the IEEE 802.11n standard; it’s also critical to further developments in cellular and wireless broadband systems as well. MIMO is the key technology in getting the most out of the relatively limited radio spectrum. It’s not easy to understand, but let me try to explain.
A radio link has a transmitter and a receiver. There are all kinds of clever things we can do with antennas to make this link more reliable, and thus maximize throughput and/or range under a given set of conditions, but, perhaps surprisingly, one of the most clever things we can do is to provision multiple transmitters and multiple receivers (multiple distinct radios with their own antennas) on a given link, all in the service of a single logical transmission stream. If we put a different signal on each of those transmitters, and do so cleverly, the result is MIMO – multiple transmitters, on the same radio frequencies, simultaneously putting energy into the radio channel that connects the two endpoints, and multiple receivers taking that energy out on the other end. This sounds like it shouldn’t work – after all, won’t the transmitters interfere with each other? Don’t the natural collisions and reflections of radio waves as they move through the environment – known as multipath – cause the usual problems with decreased signal strength and reliability? Well, no, these aren’t problems at all in a properly designed MIMO system. Multipath is, in fact and quite counterintuitively, essential to the proper functioning of a MIMO link.
Because MIMO so dramatically improves reliability, capacity, range, and throughput, I would not recommend any wireless LAN product today that isn’t based on 802.11n. You need to be careful here, though, because MIMO is in fact an optional feature in 802.11n, and you’ll find many products on the market that don’t implement it. These are usually the ones limited to 150 Mbps, but it’s often very hard to tell. Look for 300 Mbps (or more, although these are rare today) and you’ll be all set. As for cellular and mobile broadband – you won’t have much control over the technology in your purchases here, and it will regardless be a while before MIMO is dominant in the wide area. But keep your eyes peeled – MIMO, like I said is one of the most significant developments in wireless – ever – and if you can get it, you want it.
March 19, 2010 2:42 PM
Posted by: Craig Mathias
You’re probably hearing a lot about femtocells, and I must admit the argument is seductive. Buy a femtocell, connect it to your broadband link, pay a nominal monthly fee, and get great coverage at your location – except for a couple of little details.
Think of a femtocell as a personal cellular base station, and that’s really what it is. At first glance this seems like a reasonable and perhaps even ideal way to go if you’ve got poor coverage from your carrier in your location. But the drawbacks to this approach are many:
- There’s the extra cost, both for the femtocell and for recurring monthly service
- There are potential issues with interference, as the femtocell overlays the larger macrocell operated by the carrier. This isn’t much of an issue for one single femtocell, but can be given the cumulative effect of many of them in a given area.
- Femtocells are a single-carrier solution. Suppose you end up with two carriers, as has often been the case for me? Suppose you switch carriers? What about guests visiting?
- And, given that broadband operators in the US do not have to operate under a policy of network neutrality, suppose your broadband supplier just decides at some point not to allow femtocell traffic? The broadband guys are are, after all, usually offering competitive phone service, so why lose that business to a carrier that pays them nothing?
In short, carriers going the femtocell route are asking us to pay even more to subsidize their failure to provide good service. I personally won’t play this game.
A better approach is either the repeater I discussed last time, or handing the cellular connection off to Wi-Fi, a technique initially called fixed/mobile convergence but really more aptly described as mobile/mobile convergence and today usually grouped under the general heading of unified mobile communications. This is perhaps the best solution of all – and more on it later.
March 17, 2010 6:58 AM
Posted by: Craig Mathias
, cellular coverage
, cellular repeaters
I think I mentioned this before, but I’ve got fairly poor cellular coverage where I live. This is frustrating for obvious reasons, but also because it’s not like I’m off in the wilderness – rather, I’m in the suburbs of Boston and only about a half-mile from the Mass Pike. Things should be better. I’ve got acceptable coverage from Verizon, assuming I’m outdoors or on the second floor of my house, but AT&T and thus iPhone service – nada. But there is a solution here that’s pretty easy, although not a slam dunk – it’s called a cellular repeater.
A repeater is a device about the size of a Wi-Fi access point that has a small antenna on the case, and then a connection for a larger antenna that is installed via a length of coax cable. Basically, it’s an intelligent booster amplifier, and some of these are actually (mostly, anyway) carrier-independent. In other words, they work with essentially any handset, voice and data, and transparently. Install the repeater, power it up, and you’re done. Coverage problem solved.
That installation part, though, might take some doing. You know that antenna at the end of the length of coax? You really need to separate it from the base station by a good distance, and you might want to hide that cable and antenna if aesthetics are a concern. This might require professional help. But it shouldn’t be too much of a job, and the repeater itself sells for a very reasonable $200-300, depending upon model and where it’s purchased, of course. I’m at present using the zBoost YX-510, and, yes, testing shows that I could indeed now get an iPhone if so inclined. I think I’ll wait for a Verizon iPhone anyway, since I’m already a Verizon customer, or perhaps the Nexus One, again from Verizon, when it’s available. More on handsets later.
You do not, by the way, require the approval of your carrier to install a repeater. Their use is governed by FCC regulations, so you’re in the clear here. There are also no recurring fees.
Many have noted that another reasonable approach to solving the coverage problem is the use of femtocells. I disagree, and I’ll cover these next time.
March 15, 2010 9:13 AM
Posted by: Craig Mathias
, security policy
Most businesses that I’ve discussed the issue with, large and small, do not have a written security policy, and I fund this truly stunning. Security, it seems, is all to often an afterthought, based on the assumption that, particularly in smaller firms, hackers and crackers won’t make the firm a target, and thus security tools, techniques, and procedures are like an expensive insurance policy. Why spend the money when the risk is low? And, really, to be fair, the risk is low, but it’s not low enough to prevent massive expense and loss of customer and client confidence and consequently revenue if one gets hit. Farpoint Group deals in information – if that information is compromised, we are likely out of business and in court. That would be bad.
So we have a security policy, and we use this to drive the systems and procedures to do the very best we can to protect our – and our client’s – information and IT assets. In principle, a security policy is simple – it defines what is to be secured, who should have access to secured (I like the term “sensitive” here) information and under what circumstances, and what to do in the event of a breach or suspected compromise of the data. No two security policies are identical. At Farpoint Group, for example, we treat all information as sensitive unless otherwise indicated. No sensitive information is made available to anyone without (a) a need to know, and (b) a Farpoint Group Confidential Disclosure Agreement in place. We keep all other information about specific systems and procedures confidential – there’s no point in waving a red flag in front of a hacker. We maintain a fairly low profile and, again, are as careful as we can be. The business depends upon this. It’s critical.
Unfortunately, when it comes to security, you’re never done. Each new day brings a potential new threat, and you need to keep up to date on both problems and solutions. This is a big challenge for small, non-IT businesses. You may want to hire a consultant to get your initial security policy and corresponding systems and procedures in place, but also for periodical updates and changes. But no matter how you proceed, keep security at the top of your IT list. If a network, wired or wireless, isn’t secure, it’s not really a network – it’s an invitation to disaster.
March 12, 2010 6:19 PM
Posted by: Craig Mathias
, 3.5G. 4G
, mobile broadband
You’ve probably seen Sprint’s ads for their 4G service, which is actually the company reselling capabilities from Clearwire, a broadband carrier running a network based on WiMAX that they partially acquired from Sprint. Confused? You don’t know the half of it – there’s more hype around 4G than most other areas of wireless, a field known for, well, a good deal of hype. Let me see if I can clear up at least a little of all this.
It all started with 1G, of course, which is also called analog cellular. There were at least nine different technologies here, with all the consequential incompatibilities. But, most importantly, as demand built, it became critical to improve spectral efficiency – the number of simultaneous calls per unit of spectrum and unit of time that could fit on a given carrier’s spectrum in a given locale. And, of course, it also became more important to get more spectrum in the first place, another issue entirely. So we went to digital cellular, a/k/a 2G, and GSM became the dominant technology here. Contrary to popular belief, 2G wasn’t about improved voice quality or any form of data services, again, just about getting more calls on the air. But data soon became important, and packet data at that, which led to the introduction of GPRS, often called 2.5G, and offering throughput on the order of 100Kbps. 3G is an evolution of 2G, but broadband, with data services of up to 2 Mbps defined, and today we even have 3.5G, mostly in the form of HSPA, which can offer peak speeds well above 2 Mbps.
Which leads us to 4G. There is, as yet, no official or widely-accepted definition for what 4G is. Many believe that the ITU, which codifies such things, will settle on 4G as being defined by data throughput of 100 Mbps. I don’t think this is a good idea – first of all, that’s clearly a peak speed that won’t be realized by us mere mortal users. And more importantly, it would cost a small fortune to offers such a service to a given user, and we still won’t be able to support very many simultaneous users in any given location at those kinds of speeds.
I think, then, that a better definition of 4G is basically analogous to what we want from landline communications and networking services – digital, broadband, wireless, mobile, all-IP, and with support for time-bounded services like voice and video. Now, neither WiMAX or nor its chief 4G competitor, LTE, offer voice today. But both have defined voice services, and both, in my book, therefore qualify as 4G. I think LTE is going to be the big winner here because it is the logical evolution of GSM and UMTS, the 2G and 3G, respectively, services with the largest market presence. You’ll start to see LTE become available this year from Verizon, with AT&T and T-Mobile joining in later. But as for critical mass, as I call it, being able to depend upon reliable 4G coverage in major business locations around the country, don’t hold your breath – it will be, I believe, around 2105 before this is a reality for most of us.