Thursday, December 17, 2015

Drawing electronic circuits

When I first started out playing with electronics, making printed circuits was difficult. It required tedious printing of the "mask" onto the copper-clad board, caustic chemicals, and usually multiple attempts to get it right.


It has gotten easier over the years and there are fabrication houses that can print them from drawings, but that takes time and it's not particularly cost effective for experimenters testing simple designs.



Here's an interesting option called Circuit Scribe for the budding STEM student in your house. Using a conductive ink, you can now draw circuits onto any insulating surface (even paper) and stick electronic components to them magnetically. It will certainly be useful in teaching electronics and even has connectors for Arduino.


I think I'd still prefer to do this kind of testing with a breadboard, but if your kids want to learn more about basic electronics, this might be just the thing.


https://123d.circuits.io/shop/circuitscribe sells Circuit Scribe kits.
Here's a video that shows off the technology: https://youtu.be/e0NM1jJbjrM

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Basic's training for Apple gear

Computers, tablets and phones are popular gifts for the holidays. If your family gets Apple presents this year, there's a resource that's close by and helpful.

It's the Apple Store. 

I don't often go to the Apple Store, but I had something shipped there that I bought on-line. As I was checking out, I mentioned that I might be giving a MacBook Air to my wife to replace a clunky old Dell. The sales person, Ameesh, mentioned that they have workshops in the store for people to learn about the technology. And these workshops are free.

There are workshops on iPhones, iPads, Apple watches, Macs – even iPhone videography. So, if you've got a relative that needs some basic tech instruction on Apple gear, check them out!

In Toledo: https://www.apple.com/retail/franklinparkmall 

Monday, December 14, 2015

Portable second screen

I enjoy the benefits of the additional real estate of a second monitor at my desk. Now there's an easy on-the-road option.

It's called Duet and it allows you to use your iPad as a second screen. You install Duet on your PC or Mac (for free), on your iPad (for $9) and plug in your iPad with a USB cable it just works. 

It works with either a Lightning equipped iPad or one of the older models with the 30 pin connector. I'm using it with an iPad 3 and a MacBook Pro – they say it also works with Windows PC's.

The performance isn't super but I understand it's better with a newer iPad using a Lightning connector – it's adequate for anything you're doing that doesn't require a lot of mouse movement. I'd love to see it working with an iPad Pro (but I just can't afford one.)

Pretty cool!

Friday, December 11, 2015

Huge drive from Western Digital


I've been watching disk storage advances since the 80's and I'm constantly amazed at what they're doing with this technology.

This year, for the first time, Western Digital has announced a 10TB drive, the He10

In order to achieve this density of storage, they use multiple platters, each platter storing more than a TB of data. They fill the drives with helium in order to fly the heads closer to the surface than on traditional air-filled drives.

You probably won't be getting one for the Holidays: the He10 drive is designed for datacenter rack use – high performance, low power usage, high reliability (2.5M hours MTBF.) It runs at 7200 RPM and the SAS version has a 12Gb per second transfer rate.

This kind of high density storage means lower power, less rack space and better performance for very large datacenters. 

As SSD drives increase in capacity, the competition between these technologies will continue for the foreseeable future – this is important in our increasingly data-centric world.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Browser Testing

I've recently accepted a new role at work work. I'm moving into the web team and will be picking up Dev/Ops responsibilities. I'm really looking forward to working with the new team and continuing to learn new stuff!

I'm still blogging (here and on an internal corporate blog), but the focus may change a little as I discuss more of the software side of things. Starting today!

Browser Testing

It used to be that if you wanted to test your website with, say, Internet Explorer 8 on Windows 7, you'd have to have a Windows 7 PC with Internet Explorer 8 on it. Regression testing across many machine/browser variations could get very expensive very fast.


Today there are better ways to do this. 

You could set up a lab with various virtual machines running the different versions of the operating systems and browsers. But, you'd still have to manage the underlying hardware, the virtual machines' base operating systems, the various versions of the browsers you want to test and be able to spin up a pristine version of the browser for each test. You'd also have to keep the machines patched and operating. If you wanted to do automated testing, you'd have to set up and manage your testing tools environment as well.  Still rather resource intensive – just less hardware.

The easiest option, by far, is to let someone else handle everything from the browser down to the operating system, hardware and network connection - a Platform as a Service. There are a number of cloud based services that do this. I looked at a few of them last night. Here are some highlights.

I looked at three services: CrossBrowserTesting, SauceLabs and BrowserStack.

CrossBrowserTesting supports several versions of Windows, OSX, Ubuntu and mobile platforms with all the major browsers (IE, FireFox, Chrome, Opera, etc.) It costs $30/user/month and looks like a capable product. They offer a 7 day free trial, but it only provides Windows and Mac operating systems (no Linux) to test with. It took about 20 seconds to start up and load a test page. You can run automated tests (using Selenium) or manually test.

SauceLabs supports a similar stable of platforms, but they only charge $12/user/month. It took about 25 seconds to start up and load a test page. They also offer Selenium automated testing and manual testing. They offer a free trial as well but with more combinations of platform/browser than CrossBrowserTesting.

BrowserStack also supports a number of different platforms (no Linux, though) and also automated testing with Selenium. It's $30/user/month as well. They offer a free trial, but only with the most recent versions of the browsers. (I didn't trial this one: they have a browser add-in that I would want to analyze more thoroughly before installing it.)

I like SauceLabs the best: lowest cost, it supports all the platforms I'm interested in and has an easy-to-use interface. 

These are all capable tools – check them out. They're much less work than maintaining a room full of hardware… And they're all pretty cheap.


Monday, December 7, 2015

On-site paper recycling

Here’s a novel piece of technology that Jessi Roedema forwarded to me.

It’s a paper recycling system designed for corporate/large-scale paper users. Rather than collecting, shredding, transporting and recycling, this system does it all, on-site turning used paper into new paper.

The PaperLab system takes printed sheets in, grinds them to a fine powder, removes the ink and presses them back into pristine sheets of paper at 14 pages per minute. It doesn’t use the costly bleach and water slurry system that “real” paper manufacturers use. They don’t talk a lot about the technology, but a recent patent may show what they’re using: https://www.google.com/patents/EP2664708A1 

For heavy paper users with serious security challenges this would solve the problem of transporting unshredded paper to a recycler as well as reducing the shredding and two-way transportation cost.  The technology is not small and it’s not cheap – ArsTechnica estimates the cost higher than $75K, no word regarding on-going consumables and power cost. They’ll go on sale in Japan in 2016, and presumably elsewhere later.

Here’s a link to the press release for more info. 
http://global.epson.com/newsroom/2015/news_20151201.html 


Friday, December 4, 2015

Memory failures - stop blaming cosmic rays!

Here's a fascinating (really) article from IEEE on an investigation into DRAM failures. 

Most computer problems are due to these memory failures. Surprisingly, until now, no one really knew much about them. The prevalent assumption was that memory corruption was due to high-energy particle cascades from cosmic rays… (really!)

Since DRAM error events are relatively rare, it takes analysis of huge datacenters with thousands of computers storing petabytes of data to come to meaningful conclusions. 

It's a quick read and very interesting if you like to know what makes computers tick (or, rather, what makes them stop ticking…)

http://spectrum.ieee.org/computing/hardware/drams-damning-defects-and-how-they-cripple-computers?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+IeeeSpectrum+%28IEEE+Spectrum%29


Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Newest Raspberry Pi

The newest version of the Raspberry Pi, the Pi Zero, was released last week. 

And it costs $5.

It uses the Broadcom BCM2835 processor (40% faster than the original Pi) and has 512MB of RAM. 

There's a microsSD slot for the OS, a mini-HDMI socket for full HD @60 fps and Micro-USB sockets for data and power. It's about half the size of the original Raspberry Pi but has the same 40-pin GPIO header (to connect it to real-world I/O) and it includes space for composite video header as well. Raspbian Linux has been ported to it, so it should work just like the other Pi's.

It's available from Adafruit and MicroCenter here in the US, but they expect demand to keep them out of stock for a while. They say they've produced tens of thousands of the little computers, but at $5, demand will likely eclipse even the very popular Raspberry Pi 1 when it was announced.) 

The A+, Pi 2 and the B+ models are still available (at $20, $35 and $25 respectively.)

With the incredibly low cost of these devices, they're likely to show up in everything from light switches to drones.

For more details: https://www.raspberrypi.org/blog/raspberry-pi-zero/

Monday, November 30, 2015

Home power monitoring

Here's an interesting device for monitoring power in your home. It's called Sense (https://sense.com). 


You have the device installed in your electric panel and connect it to your home WiFi. It "listens" for the electrical signatures of devices as they turn on and off and monitors how much power they each use. It can produce a monthly report of power usage by device.

In order to differentiate devices, Sense compares the signatures to a database  of home appliances they've compiled. They're working on a "Teach Me" feature that lets you train it to recognize other devices.

While it is a consumer product, you really should have a qualified electrician install it since you're dealing with lethal voltages/currents…

The application is currently iOS-only but they say an Android version is in the works. Shipping next week, a preorder is available at $199 (it looks like their retail price will be $299.)

It's another piece of the home automation and monitoring phase of the Internet of Things.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Chromebit - computer-on-a-stick

Small computer aficionados will be happy to learn that the new Google/ASUS Chromebit has just been released.


The Chromebit is a Chrome OS computer that ASUS announced back in March. It has an ARM processor, 2G of RAM, 16G of storage, WiFi, Bluetooth and a USB port. It plugs into your monitor's HDMI port. Add a bluetooth keyboard and a mouse and you've got a Chromebox on a stick.

It's available now for $85 and would make a great digital media player. It should be available at Amazon, Fry's and Newegg but as of 6 AM, it isn't in their catalogs.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Hefty Huawei charging on the horizon

Battery life and battery charging times are under constant pressure to improve – you want your phone in your hand, not the charger.


Huawei has recently shown a new battery technology using a 3Ah graphite-coated anode in a lithium-ion prototype that can charge to almost 50% in 5 minutes (a smaller 600mAh battery can get to 68% in 2 minutes.) Here's a video of the Huawei demo: http://v.qq.com/page/f/0/u/f0172ovjg0u.html 

The Huawei battery requires a special charger similar to the one Qualcomm recently announced. (The Qualcomm charger can charge a dead smartphone battery to 80% in 35 minutes.)

This advance coupled with continued reduction in the power necessary to run new smartphones could result in smaller batteries and yet thinner phones. No word as to when we might expect to see a product using this technology.

Here's the Huawei press release on the technology: http://www.huawei.com/en/news/2015/11/Huawei%20reveals%20the%20next%20generation%20of%20quick%20charging%20technology


Friday, November 13, 2015

Windows 10 update

Yesterday, Microsoft released the first "big" update to Windows 10. Here are the highlights:

  • Performance improvements (boot time is 30% faster than Windows 7)
  • Cortana can now recognize your handwriting and track your events – like a real assistant
  • Cortana can also point you to coupons while you're shopping on-line
  • Cortana can send texts via your Windows phone (in preview.)
  • Edge is faster. It syncs your passwords and favorites across your Windows 10 devices
  • You can now send video from Edge to Miracast or DLNA devices (like Chromecast and Roku)
  • App updates to OneNote, Calendar, Mail, Photos, Store and a few others
  • There's a new messaging app (in preview) that allows replies in notifications.
  • Nested virtualization – I'm sure someone, somewhere has a need for this…
  • Swipe switching, swipe down to close are back
  • Better RAM usage (W10 compresses unused pages instead of swapping them to disk)
  • Speed Shift (with Skylake processors) – improves responsiveness and battery use

I don't use Windows 10 daily, but I do have one device that gets updated with each preview release. Are you a regular Windows 10 user? What are your impressions?

Microsoft announces this kind of thing on their blog – here's yesterday's.



Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A push-button remote-control (literally)

Here's an oddly interesting device - that I'm surprised no one has come up with before now... It's basically an internet controlled push-button called Microbot Push (It's got about a month to go on Indiegogo.) It can be used to transform ordinary appliances into Internet of Things devices. 

Whatever you do, don't connect two of these together
back-to-back: you could tear the space-time continuum...
If you want to automate the action of something that only uses buttons, this is the tool for that. For example, in order to start a cheap Keurig coffee maker in the morning, you have to push a button to turn it on, then push another button to begin the "brewing" process. A couple of these button pushers would do the trick. Or, you could automate your garage door opener without doing any re-wiring. 

[Of course this is a solution to a first world problem - when I was young we had to walk across 9 feet of shag carpet to even change the channel on our TV...]

Over time, as more and more internet controlled devices become available, the market for this device should diminish. It remains to be seen if they can actually sell them at $200 for a "starter kit" with three button-pushers. 

If you need to do the same thing with a wall switch, you could either replace the switch with a WeMo switch or use the Switchmate switch cover – both under $40.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Disk upgrade for your old MacBook

Here’s an interesting technology that might help extend the life of your old MacBook​. 


It’s called TarDisk Pear​ and it has a special installer that "merges" an SD card with your existing solid state drive. The software uses the SSD as the preferred location for frequently used files and the SD for less frequently used files -- to you, it looks like one larger drive.

The SD has a brushed aluminium end cap so that it meshes with the side of the MacBook.

It’s a relatively expensive upgrade, but is a bit easier than replacing your SSD with a larger one. 128GB version is $150 and the 256GB model is about $400. (If you’re considering buying a new MacBook it would be cheaper to just get the larger SSD.)

Thursday, October 29, 2015

5G -- it's not about phones

Earlier this month, Frank Fitzek of the Dresden University of Technology spoke about 5G technology at SEMICON Europa 2015. 

Here's a bullet-point summary of his report:

  • 5G is not an incremental upgrade of 4G for phones
  • It provides infrastructure for management and control of Internet of Things devices
  • By 2020 there will be 50-500 billion(!) IoT devices connected -- most of these won't be smartphones
  • Today's interconnections are too slow, insecure and unreliable
  • 5G will require:
    • Software Defined Networks
    • Software Defined Storage
    • Software Defined Radios
    • High throughput
    • Unbreakable security
    • Low latency

Fitzek believes that all of these can be done, but it will require serious coordination. 

Here's a link to the article from EE Times. http://www.eetimes.com/document.asp?doc_id=1327901

5G Architecture diagram courtesy of Ericsson.




Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The race to the bottom for low-priced microcontrollers

If you've read this blog for a while, you know that I'm a fan of the Raspberry Pi and other small PCs (the Intel Compute Stick, the PiPO X7/8, Chip.) These cheap computers are being used for everything from industrial controllers / monitors to robotics to Internet of Things home control devices.

At the bottom end, the Pi (still $35) and the Chip ($9) are now competing with a new product from Intel called the Arduino 101. If you've been playing with this technology, you'll recognize the Arduino name - they've been around for a few years in the "maker" space. In the past they've used the ATmel/ATmega microchip. Now Intel has announced one that uses the Intel Curie Compute Module, a 32-bit Intel Quark microcontroller. 

It comes with 384 kB of flash memory, 80 kB of SRAM an integrated DSP sensor hub for signal processing. The processor includes on-board Bluetooth low energy communications and an accelerometer/gyroscope. The board uses the same form factor as Arduino and has similar I/O capability and it will sell for $30 when it comes out 1Q16. 

The programming model is the same as Arduino: you write your code using the Arduino IDE and upload it to the board to run. You'll note that it's much (much) smaller in terms of capacity than a Raspberry Pi, but the coding model is also much more accessible for new developers. They really are quite simple to program.

Intel and Arduino are using it to promote their "Arduio 101 in the Classroom" program - similar to the mission of the Raspberry Pi people.

I think it's exciting to see additional competition in this space as it encourages more young developers to enter the IoT space.


Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Square Reader credit card hack

Here's one more blog on security issues in honor of Cyber Security Month. This one is on a recent hack that uses the compact Square credit card reader to "skim" credit cards that are swiped.

A malicious seller could use modified Square Reader hardware/software to record a victim's credit card information at the same time as he's swiping it for forward to Square servers for processing. According to researchers at Boston University, it takes about 10 minutes to turn the Square scanner into a skimmer. This hack also allows the skimmer to "record" the swipe for later playback to charge the customer's card later. 

The research was presented at this year's Black Hat security conference. Here are the details, if you're interested – it's a fascinating read: https://www.blackhat.com/docs/us-15/materials/us-15-Mellen-Mobile-Point-Of-Scam-Attacking-The-Square-Reader-wp.pdf 

Square claims that it's the magnetic stripe cards that are the cause of this issue and say that their readers that use chip technology are secure.

My advice: don't hand your credit card over to anyone you don't really trust. Also keep an eye on the transactions on-line or in your monthly statement – and contest the one's you didn't authorize. Finally, if you don't already have one, you should request a chip credit card from your bank or card issuer – they are more secure than the mag strip cards.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Leave your FitBit at home

One of the problems with wearable devices is that they connect to other devices. If they’re infected with malware, they can spread this infection when they connect.


That’s what some hackers at the Hack.Lu conference in Luxembourg demonstrated last week with the FitBit. Using a man-in-the-middle attack, they intercept communication between the FitBit and FitBit servers. When the transaction is complete, the hacking software can insert it’s payload in the response, infecting the FitBit. When the FitBit is connected to its owner’s computer it can upload the infected software to the computer to infect it or other FitBits connecting to that computer.

The exploit was reported to FitBit in March, but they haven’t fixed it yet. Now that it’s out in public, you may want to wait to upload your workout results until you’re out of Bluetooth range of the fitness center… or just leave the device at home.

When we create Internet of Things devices, we really need to engineer in security and management into the device from the start – and just expect them to be hacker targets.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

iOS 9.1 - meh...

iOS 9.1 was released yesterday. I've loaded it on a couple of iPhones (a 6 and a
6S) and it seems to be working fine. As always, unless you're the adventurous type, I'd recommend waiting a while before you upgrade – let other people shake out any bugs. 

Features of iOS 9.1:

  • New wallpapers
  • Apple News is now live
  • A bunch of new emoji
  • Shift and delete keys look a little different
  • A fix for Live Photos (eliminates raise/lower shots)
  • 9.1 supports the new iPad Pro and Apple TV


Have you upgraded? Any problems?

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Card hack in Europe exposed

This being Cybersecurity awareness month, I thought I'd discuss an interesting hardware hack that just came to light. 

As you may know, US credit card companies and banks have begun issuing cards with embedded chips in them. Scanners that require a PIN basically compare the PIN that the user enters to the PIN on the card and, if they match, the system accepts the user's credentials and allows the transaction to occur.

A European hack hat occurred a couple of years ago has recently been described that allowed criminals to extract ~$700,000 from European businesses using stolen cards. 

Here's how they did it. They soldered a chip onto the existing one that simply indicated to the scanner that whatever the user keyed in as his PIN was correct. The card was a little thicker than most, but it fooled retailers. The perpetrators were caught when investigators noticed a pattern in the places where the cards were used.

The method they used is detailed in this fascinating paper published by the École Normale Supérieure university in Paris: http://eprint.iacr.org/2015/963.pdf 

They've changed their system so that the scanners now test for this kind of signal before even asking for the PIN. (I assume that the new system rolled out in the US has this bug fixed as well…)

Where there's money to be made, criminals will find a way.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Braille tablet

​Austrian company, Blitab, is developing a useful device for blind people – it "displays" a full page of Braille on a tablet. The device uses small haptic "bubbles" on the surface that raise or lower for each character. Previous Braille readers that have been around for many years only display one line of text and are somewhat clunky to use.

The Blitab directly converts text on USB sticks, memory cards, web browsers and NFC. The device also has a built in Braille keyboard. They're apparently available for pre-order (http://blitab.com/pre-order) but no word on availability or shipping dates.

This should go a long way to improve the lives of the  40 million blind people in the world, providing access to the web and other services currently only available via verbal reading apps.



Friday, October 16, 2015

Use old devices as security cameras

​If you're like me, you've got some old devices around the house – old laptops, USB cameras, or phones sitting in drawers. A new startup from the Samsung Accelerator program called Perch lets you make these devices into home monitoring cameras.

You set up the device with a view of the area you want to monitor. You can designate an area of the screen to monitor and if the device sees movement in that area, you can be alerted. You can also start a video chat with the device. The traffic is encrypted to ensure privacy. Alerts could also be used to turn on lights or activate other Internet of Things devices in your house.

They're currently offering it as a free service, but will likely charge for it at some point. While the camera devices can be pretty much anything you own that runs Chrome, the remote device for receiving the alerts and conducting video chats currently needs to be an Android 4.1 or better device (iOS and smart TV versions are coming later.)

Go to http://getperch.com for more information. You can download the Android app from the Google play store.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Mini touchscreen PC

An associate at work mentioned Chinese PC manufacturer PiPO in response to my blogs on the HP Stream and Intel Compute Stick mini-PC's.

I did a little research on their product line and discovered another useful and inexpensive mini-PC, the PiPO X8. It's a desktop 7" touchscreen PC that dual-boots Windows 8.1 and Android 4.4. 

They're marketing it as a "set top" media player for your TV – it's got an HDMI output to hook up to your TV/monitor. It doesn't have batteries, so it needs to be plugged in all the time contrary to most of their promotional pictures...

Here are some of the specs:

  • Intel Quad Core Atom processor 1.33 – 2.16 GHz
  • HD Graphics
  • 2GB Ram
  • 32GB storage
  • Micro SD slot
  • Bluetooth 4
  • Ethernet 10/100
  • WiFi 802.1 b/g/n
  • 4 USB (2.0) ports
  • Microphone, two speakers and an earphone jack


I just picked one up and it seems to work well, if you don't push it. The touchscreen is responsive and video plays well. I've attached a small video camera for use with Skype. It comes with a free year of Office, but I think the performance with anything but a very simple document or spreadsheet would limit this use.

I'm thinking that this (or it's screenless brother, the X7) might make a good digital media player. They're both less than $120 on Amazon (without a keyboard and mouse.)

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

New Apple TV coming

Last time I talked about the new Google Chromecast for your TV. Today, I'll highlight the features of the new Apple TV.

As I mentioned, the $35 Chromecast is a whole lot cheaper than the current Apple TV at $70. The new Apple TV will sell for $150-$200  when it goes on sale later this month or early November.

Here are some of the features of the new device:

  • Typical TV apps – Netflix, Hulu, ESPN, iTunes, ABC, Disney, HBO, Showtime, etc.
  • New apps available in the App Store (including games)
  • Customizable home screen
  • Dual-core A8 processor
  • Includes 802.11/ac
  • New remote with touch and voice interface (Siri Remote)
  • Quick, two tap app switching 
  • Use Siri just like on your phone (for weather, sports, stocks, etc.)
  • Remote can also be used for your TV (for volume, on/off)
  • Like the old Apple TV you can use a Bluetooth keyboard
  • Uses both Bluetooth 4 and IR transmitter
  • Remote is rechargeable with a lightning/USB cable (3 months between charges.)
  • Also has a gyro and accelerometer for games and possibly pointing
  • You will also be able to use your iPhone as a remote

I'm not sure if the additional functionality of the remote would be enough to convince me to upgrade, but if this is your first Apple TV, it might be worth it. 

With a suitable app, it could be used as a digital media player, but it's unclear whether or not Apple wants to play in that space.

Are you considering one?

Monday, October 12, 2015

New Chromecast from Google

There's a new version of Chromecast from Google. Here are some of the differences from the old version.

The 2015 Chromecast has an upgraded radio that supports 802.11ac WiFi on 2.4/5 Ghz. This should result in better streaming.

It's also got a processor upgrade that they claim results in a 2.5x performance improvement. There's a new app that predicts your next viewing and pre-loads the video resulting in a quicker start.

The search software searches Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Crackle and YouTube. Lastly, it has a new form factor – it's a small disk with an HDMI cable sticking out. It still uses microUSB for charging.

The price is the same as the old one, $35, and it's available now on the Google Store. These might make a great digital media platform, but unless they offer custom Android apps they might be a little too "consumer" for this kind of kiosk/turnkey app.

But as a consumer device, it's a whole lot cheaper than the new Apple TV (more on that later.)

Have you tried it yet? What are your impressions?

Friday, October 9, 2015

Amazon announces Internet of Things services platform

​Internet of Things devices face some challenges:

  • They need to connect with other IoT devices or services, securely routing messages
  • Systems need to make decisions based on inputs from these devices 
  • They need to be protected – from hackers and accidental abuse
  • You need some way to inventory and manage devices and associate them with people, things and locations


This week Amazon announced its IoT platform/service for AWS that provides:

  • A Device Gateway to handle communications with devices
  • A Registry that keeps track of where devices are, what they do and their current state
  • A Rules engine that handles secure message routing, filtering, etc.
  • Interfaces to backend AWS services like databases, storage, compute and their new Lambda microservice processing engine.


As with their pricing on other products there's no minimum cost – they offer a free tier of 250,000 messages delivered/routed per month and $5 per million messages above that (a message is a 512-byte block.)

I'm sure we'll be seeing a lot more from Amazon in the IoT space – they're a huge player in virtually every other computing space…

This could be big.

For more information see https://aws.amazon.com/iot/

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Microsoft Surface Pro 4

​Yesterday, Microsoft announced their Surface Pro 4. In case you missed the announcement, here are some highlights.


The Pro 4 has a little larger screen than the Pro 3, with much higher resolution (2736 x 1824 Vs. 2160 x 1440) and they've improved the touchscreen technology – the new screen measures the amount of light blocked by whatever is touching the screen to determine whether it's a finger or a stylus and then touch detection is optimized for whichever it detects. The new Surface Pen is more sensitive (1024 levels of pressure sensitivity) and has an "eraser" on the back end – it comes with the Pro 4 but is available separately for other Surface devices (for $60.)

You can get up to 16GB of RAM and 1 TB SSD and a new Intel Skylake processor – they say it it is 50% faster than a MacBook Air (no mention of the actual models compared…) 

It has all the same wireless options as the 3 (802.11ac, Bluetooth 4, USB 3, mini displayport, microSD reader.) They still use the "SurfaceConnect" charging port (instead of the new USB-C that many others have moved to.) You still can't get a 4G radio in the new Surface. The rear facing camera has been upgraded to 8 MP (from 5 on the Pro 3). Battery life is the same ("up to" 9 hours.)

It's a little lighter (1.7 lb vs 1.75 lb) and about a mm thinner.

There's a new "Type" cover available. It has a larger trackpad, a fingerprint sensor and wider key spacing. It's still extra cost ($160) and it works with the Pro 3.

The base model starts at $899 and fully configures goes up to $2699. It's available for pre-order starting today and will go on sale October 26.

They make solid hardware so if you're looking for a beefy laptop, this might be a good (albeit expensive) choice. 



Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Android 6.0 "Marshmallow"

If you're an Android user you may be interested in the most recent version of Android, version 6.0 - I don't use Android phones or tablets, but I do keep my phone and tablet operating system up-to-date and you should too, as long as your device supports the current OS.

Android 6.0 "Marshmallow" is rolling out to Nexus devices 5, 5X, 6, 6P, 7, 9 now, newer Motorola, Sony and HTC phones later, and older phones, never...

So, what do you get with Marshmallow? 

Here's a brief rundown:

  • More control over app permissions: which apps can access the mic, camera, etc.
  • Apps are now able to use your fingerprint for security – it's baked in to an API.
  • "Direct share" makes it easier to share photos, etc. with frequent contacts.
  • "Doze" feature for reducing power consumption – uses motion sensors
  • Supports USB Type-C, if your phone supports it
  • Better text selection, copy and paste functions
  • Easier to use volume controls for music, alarm,, etc.
  • Apps can open a customized Chrome app on top of the active app (instead of switching to Chrome.)
  • Still working on mobile payments work with Android Pay.
  • Auto Backup and Restore with Google Drive (backup doesn't count toward your data quota.)
  • Google Now updated for better context understanding.
  • You can now easily remove status bar icons


For more info check out the official Android page or consult your carrier for info on when it will be rolling out for you. https://www.android.com/versions/marshmallow-6-0/

Are you already using Marshmallow 6.0? How do you like it?

Monday, October 5, 2015

New Google tablet - Pixel C

When it comes to laptops and the like, Google is not known for inexpensive hardware. The Pixel and Pixel 2 are very sturdy and high performance Chromebooks, but they're way too expensive.


Now Google's come out with a new tablet, confusingly called the Pixel C ("C" for convertible.) When it goes on sale in later this year it will cost $499 for a 32GB storage and 3GB of RAM, 10" tablet with a magnetically attachable keyboard (an additional $150.) It's got a microphone array that works for Google voice search from anywhere in the room, stereo speakers, 10 hour battery life and a USB Type-C port for fast charging. The keyboard charges from the tablet using an induction charger (no wires to the keyboard for charging.)

And, for those of you that currently use an Android phone, it runs the familiar Android operating system --  the new "Marshmallow" version. It should be available in time for the holidays.

I'm an Apple guy, and I very seldom use a keyboard with my iPad - I usually just use a Mac or a Chromebook with Google Apps when I need to type anything substantial. But, if you're looking for a replacement for your old Android tablet and don't mind spending a little extra cash, this will likely be a very beefy, sturdy tablet.

Is this on your holiday shopping list? Or are you looking at the iPad Pro?

Friday, October 2, 2015

Samsung's cheap new VR headset

Last week, at Oculus Connect, Samsung announced that their new Gear VR headset will be coming out in November. The big news is that they're planning to sell it for $100.

It requires you to have a Samsung phone to power it and works with the Galaxy Note 5, S6, edge and edge+.

So far only a few apps are available – not as many as with the Oculus Rift – but this could be a big push for additional developers to come into the space.

There are a number of practical applications possible (it's only software…): medical training, machine maintenance, architectural walkthroughs, driving and flight simulators, etc.

Have you had any experience with the business uses of VR?


Thursday, October 1, 2015

Google Project Fi - a new mobile network paradigm

Last week Google announced a few new phones, a new (overpriced) Pixel tablet and Project Fi – a new network paradigm. I’m sure you’ll be hearing more about it, but I thought you might be interested in the highlights.


Project Fi works by selecting the best of several options to provide connectivity. If available WiFi is better than LTE it will select WiFi. If one LTE provider has a better signal than another, it picks the one with the best signal. Currently it works with T-Mobile and Sprint and a Nexus 6 phone. Right now it's available by invitation.

One of the interesting side effects of this paradigm is the seamless transition from WiFi to cell networks and back. Also, your phone number “lives in the cloud” – you can use your number to talk and text on your phone, your tablet or your laptop from wherever you are. So you leave your phone at home, you can still connect using your laptop or tablet – or another phone.

The pricing model is interesting – you pay $20/mo (talk, text, WiFi, international coverage) plus $10/GB/mo, but you only pay for the data you use. 

For much more info see: https://fi.google.com/about/ 

I'd be interested in your feedback if you're one of the people who signs up!

Thanks to Ken Gerke for the blog suggestion!

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Apple OS X El Capitan

The latest Apple operating system, OS X El Capitan, is available today. I’ve been using a pre-release version for a few weeks and it seems very solid – I've been running it on a mid-2011 MacBook Air and a 2012 Mac Mini.

Here are a few of the interesting features that may convince you to upgrade:

  • Better video and image performance, faster app switching
  • Mission Control update: easier to use, quicker to move apps between “desktops”
  • Spotlight improvements: broader searches, more like Microsoft Cortana
  • Split view: a quick way to arrange two apps, side-by-sidie
  • Improved Notes: notes syncs to all your devices via iCloud and you can use it for images, links, videos, to-do lists, etc.
  • “Photos” improvements: “live” photos from iPhone 6S can play.
  • Minor Safari upgrades: you can mute tabs and pin tabs
  • Some “Mail” app enhancements: gesture support


For more information, head over to http://www.apple.com/osx/ later today.



Monday, September 28, 2015

Smartphone radar love

Scoutee just launched a Kickstarter campaign to produce a radar device for measuring the speed of a baseball pitch. It connects to the smartphone via Bluetooth and can be attached to the back of the phone or even hung on a backstop/fence. 

It uses Dopplar radar and they claim a within-1 mph accuracy. Works with iOS and Android and captures videos with the speed overlaid. Six hour battery life, and works up to 130 feet away.

The device is currently targeted at baseball, but I assume any speed could be measured. Retail price planned at $300, shipments 2Q16.

Can you think of business uses for this technology? Maybe, measuring the speed of a line or other process, or perhaps how fast tow-motors are moving?

Friday, September 25, 2015

A tale of two small computers

They are not the best of computers, they are not the worst of computers...

I've had a chance to play with a couple of small computers - the HP Stream Mini and the Intel Compute Stick and thought I'd provide a brief perspective on these devices.

They’re relatively inexpensive (Stick: $150, Stream: $245) and both currently run Windows 8.1 with Bing (the "with Bing" is really not important - it's just the free version of Windows 8.1 that inexpensive PC manufacturers are using.)

While the Stick is a lot cheaper, you need to buy a keyboard, a mouse and a multiport USB adapter in order to use it, and it’s performance is noticeably lower. The Stream mini is much larger, but it is reportedly easier to open and modify, if you’re into that sort of thing. They both require you to supply a monitor.

The HP Stream Mini has recently disappeared from the HP Store – it looks like they may be replacing it with the Pavilion Mini at a higher price point. Amazon used to sell the Stream Mini for $180, but their current price shows $245… Once you get into the $300+  price range of the Pavilion, you’re getting into the cheap desktop space where there is lots of other competition.

The Intel Compute Stick looks like a work in progress (or maybe a proof of concept) – if you just need a tiny computer the Raspberry Pi is a better deal. But if you need a tiny computer that runs Windows 8.1 desktop, the Compute Stick could be it.

I’ve heard that people have tried to update both to Windows 10 without much success – the very small SSDs makes this difficult.

Here are some specs:

HP Stream Mini
1.4 GHz processor
2 GB RAM
32 GB SSD
802.11 b/g/n WiFi
4 USB 3 ports
DisplayPort, HDMI
SD card slot
Power supply
Headphone jack
Keyboard & mouse








Intel Compute Stick
1.3 GHz processor
2 GB RAM
32 GB SSD
802.11 b/g/n
1 USB 2 port
HDMI
Micro SD card slot
Power supply


Thursday, September 24, 2015

Tracking customers using video

In addition to theft protection and security, tracking people in stores, airports and other public places helps understand traffic patterns, store layout, how much time people spend in various areas, and what aisles and even what SKUs are getting the most/least attention. They might also be used to evaluate salesperson/staff interactions with customers.

And there are a number of ways to track people. You might use their WiFi signals, or track them using a store app that uses location tracking or beacons, or even have someone viewing the in-store video. These could be difficult or expensive to implement or might require that people “opt in.”

Netra is working on a technology that looks at surveillance video and tracks customers based on physical characteristics (color or style of clothing, hair, etc.) They don’t have a way to attach a name or shopping history to the images, but they can track your movements through the store. They claim about 80% accuracy depending on camera quality and things like lighting, camera angles, etc.

Since the service doesn’t use facial recognition there may be less concern over privacy issues – people are used to cameras tracking them in stores for security, so it may not be much of an issue. If customers could get something out of it, it might make it even more acceptable.

Interesting technology. Can you see a use in your business for this technology? 

Or is it just too “creepy”?



Monday, September 21, 2015

A cheap tablet - from Amazon

The competition among tablet providers is heating up as the demand drops. I’ve mentioned the Ubislate in the past and while there are several other sub-$100 tablets available, support is often dismal, performance is not very good - and ​they’re not from Amazon. The only thing they’ve really got going for them is that they’re cheap.


Amazon has recently announced a $50, 7” Fire tablet. It’s got better viewing angle and color saturation than other sub-$100 tablets. It’s not high-performance – 1.3Ghz quad-core, 1024 X 600 display and 7 hour battery life. It has 8Gb of built-in storage, but you can add more in a microSD slot. It runs a modified version of the Android Lollipop operating system (Amazon Fire OS.) There are a couple of downsides. They show ads on the lock screen; apparently Amazon is using ad revenue to subsidize them... Also, it only runs apps from Amazon.

These devices are almost cheap enough to dedicate them to specific functions (I’ve got an old re-purposed B&N  Nook device running as a remote thermostat.) No word, however, on whether you can jail-break them to load a "standard" Android OS on them.

So, if you’re looking for a new alarm clock, a dedicated remote control, a browser to stick on the fridge, or a kid’s first tablet, this may be it. They’re also selling them in “six-packs” for $250.


Thursday, September 17, 2015

Microsoft e-ink Surface enhanced keyboard

Microsoft’s Applied Sciences Group is working on DisplayCover, an enhanced keyboard mounted peripheral that extends touch functionality.


It’s a 1280 X 305 pixel touch screen at the top of a keyboard that allows touch input without obscuring the screen. By placing the touch panel horizontally, it should also be faster to use.

It’s based on an e-ink screen so it uses very little power. You can use it to launch apps, as a track pad or to manipulate applications.

Here’s a link to the Applied Sciences Group Projects page with more information on this and other projects they’re working on.
https://www.microsoft.com/appliedsciences/content/projects.aspx

Do you think this would have business value? 


Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Culture of innovation

I get lots of email from various companies talking about productivity. Every once in a while there are some good nuggets.

This succinct essay on innovation culture is one of them: http://lp.google-mkto.com/rs/google/images/WP-Creating-Culture-Innovation.pdf 


Here’s a bullet list of the highlights, but the article is really worth reading in its entirety.
1. Think 10x improvements (not 10%)
2. Launch, then keep listening 
3. Share everything you can 
4. Hire the right people 
5. Use the 70/20/10 model (70% core projects, 20% near-core projects, 10% unrelated to core)
6. Look for ideas everywhere 
7. Use data, not opinions 
8. Focus on users, not the competition 

Have you experienced teams like this? Are you working on one now? Is it working?


Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Mac "El Capitan" highlights

The newest Mac OS should be available for everyone Sept. 30. I’ve been running a beta release for a few days and it seems stable. Here’s a link to the Apple site that details the features I’ve bulletized, below. 


OS X 10.11 “El Capitan” highlights:
- Performance: it seems much snappier (faster to open apps, switch between apps)
- Split View (quickly size two windows for side-by-side use.)
- Mission Control enhancements (easier desktop management)
- “Shake” your cursor to find it (magnifies cursor)
- Spotlight is more capable (natural language search - kind of like Windows Cortana…)
- Mail client enhancements (I don’t use Mac Mail, so these didn’t mean much to me.)
- Notes app enhancements (works with iCloud on all your devices)
- Third party Photo editing tools for use in Photos app.
- Pinned websites in Safari (I’m a Chrome user…)
- Ability to play videos from web pages to AirPlay on Apple TV
- Mute one or all tabs
- Maps enhancements (I use Google Maps)
- Language enhancements for Chinese and Japanese

Some useful features, but nothing I couldn’t do without… How about you?