Thursday, May 28, 2015

Brillo for your pad

The announcement of Windows 10 for the Raspberry Pi was interesting because of its implications in home automation and the Internet of Things. A capable development environment, Visual Studio, on a PC targeting a cheap computer like the RPi is a good thing for developers. Apple is also making some waves in this space with their HomeKit products on the horizon. brillo.jpg

It looks like Google will throw it's hat in the ring with a new operating system for IoT devices at Google IO, today or tomorrow. 

The product's internal project name is "Brillo" and it’s been under development under the Android brand for some time.

It’s designed to use very little memory (32-64 MB) – much less than current Android phones, which require at least 512 MB of memory – perfect for smart-locks, sensors, security systems, appliances, etc. It looks like it will also integrate with Nest products that Google bought earlier. It should be available free to hardware manufacturers and will likely use Chromebook apps or Android apps to control and manage your home.

So, we’ll be watching Apple, Microsoft and Google compete in this space. It will likely take some time for this to shake out and it’s much too early to predict a winner – none have really cracked the security issues surrounding IoT – operating system maintenance and patching will be important to any successful attempt to win this market.

Why "Brillo"? Who knows?

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

In-store navigation using Philips LED lighting

Here’s a novel use of lighting: use it for navigation. That’s what Philips is trying with their new VLC LED lighting products. 

The VLC system acts like an in-store GPS system, guiding customers to the correct aisle and shelf where they can find the product they’re interested in. It could also be used to download coupons or recipes to the consumer’s phone.

VLC, Visible Light Communication, is built into these special Philips bulbs. These LEDs broadcast a pattern that can be seen by the camera on a smartphone (people can’t see the short pulses that are used for this signaling.) The idea is to both save money on electricity for lighting (these LED cost 50% less to operate than traditional lighting) and at the same time provide this useful service for shoppers.

The system is currently running in a Carrefour supermarket in France – no word on when/if it will spread to other stores.

Here’s a video that describes the system in more detail: https://youtu.be/uQw-o6bjrec

Could this system be used in warehouses for directed pickup / putaway or for locating equipment? Or perhaps to help people navigate large offices? I'd use such a system to navigate big-box stores...


Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Continuum - your phone as a laptop replacement?

The Windows Phone is becoming Windows 10. For a couple of years we’ve been hearing about Microsoft converging platforms so that there’s one Windows from phones to tablets to desktops.

Well it looks like Windows 10 could be it. The idea is to add an HDMI monitor, a keyboard and a mouse to your Windows Phone and you will be able to use it like your laptop. Applications that work on your computer will work on your phone, Office will look the same, Outlook will look the same. You'll even be able to use the screen on your phone as a track-pad. There will be a gesture for moving apps from your phone to the big screen.

There had been some speculation that this would require new hardware in order to work well, but Microsoft has demoed this capability and it really looks good using Miracast/ScreenBeam to display the phone screen on a monitor. For casual users, this could be your new laptop. The technology that makes this possible is called Continuum.

There are some restrictions using this Continuum – you can only run one application at a time on the big screen, though you can still run a different app on the phone screen. You won't be able to run legacy apps this way. There will likely be other differences because of the phone functionality.

Currently I've got a Consumer Preview of Windows 10 running on a Nokia 1020 and a touchscreen laptop. It's neat to see that they're converging these two platforms - this might just save Windows Phone.




Friday, May 22, 2015

3D production printing

Here’s something I found interesting. Airbus used over 1000 parts printed on a 3D printer for its A350 XWB aircraft that shipped earlier this year. They used a Stratasys printer to make the parts in order to reduce production time and cost.

The process had been used previously to produce parts for military aircraft, but this the first time it has been used this broadly for a production commercial plane. There are strict airline safety standards that have to be met and these new processes require new testing procedures.

It’s a milestone, of course, but given that the typical commercial aircraft has over 2 million parts, these 1000 parts represent less than 0.2% of the parts no the plane.

3D printing is typically used more for prototyping and one-off projects than for production. I’ve been enjoying learning about 3D printers at home – I’m still in the tweaking and tuning phase, learning about the characteristics of the material, how to design for 3D printing, etc. - it’s a lot of fun.


Thursday, May 21, 2015

DO use that tone with me!

Google has released an interesting Chrome extension called Tone – it uses sound to transmit URLs to one or more PCs in the vicinity. 

You need to install the Tone Chrome Extension on both computers. Using it is simple – in Chrome on the sending computer, go to the URL you want to transmit and click on the Tone icon (a little blue bull-horn). The sending computer emits a short stream of DTMF sounds (touch-tones) and the receiving computer gets a pop-up asking if you want to open the URL. The sound on the sending computer can be quite quiet – it seemed to work reliably in my office using 25% volume. Originally, they tried it with ultrasonic signals, but found some reliability problems with speakers/microphones.

I tried it between a Chromebook and a Mac and it worked fine (it doesn’t work on the version of Chrome for iPads/iPhones.) Here’s a quick video of the process: http://youtu.be/YI-4fzrMA4M

It’s quicker than IM or Emailing the link and apparently it can also work over video conference or video chat as well. It’s like a QR code – only using sound. (It's just a bit too quiet in the video above to be used.)

If it catches on it could be a quick and easy way to share URL’s in meetings or collaboration sessions. It works like someone reading the URL to you and you typing it in - only faster. (Just make sure you trust the person that's sending you the URL...)

This is an experimental extension and may have bugs, but it seems pretty reliable so far.



Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Windows 10 "versions"

With Windows 10 on the horizon for release this summer, I thought I’d spend a few minutes outlining the various “versions” that will be available – at least the ones I know about.

Windows 10 Mobile
This edition is for smaller tablets and smartphones. You’ll only be able to run Universal Windows Apps (installed from the Microsoft App Store.) You’ll be able to hook up a keyboard, mouse and larger display and use it like a larger device (but only with Universal Windows Apps.) I recently saw a demo of mail running on a phone hooked up to a large monitor and it looked just like the desktop version. There is a preview version of Windows 10 Mobile available (but not many people actually have a spare Windows Phone to try it on...)

Windows 10 Mobile Enterprise – this adds mobile device management and additional security options.

Windows 10 Home
This is what most people (outside of businesses) will use. It’s the version that PC manufacturers will pre-install and won’t be able to be joined to an AD domain. It will include Cortana (like Siri) and Continuum (switches between tablet mode and PC mode depending on what hardware is hooked up.) Some other new features will include the new Microsoft Edge browser (much faster than IE) and Windows Hello face-recognition, iris and fingerprint secure login (with appropriately equipped devices.) W10 Home will be offered as a free upgrade to Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 licensed devices. This version can't be upgraded to Enterprise, below.

Windows 10 Pro
This is for business users and will include features from Home plus the ability to join an AD domain, get updates from the business (instead of directly from Microsoft) so that the updates can be validated with existing software (so that updates can be planned instead of just updating whenever the updates are released.) This is targeted at small and medium sized businesses. This version can be upgraded to Windows 10 Enterprise (at additional cost.)

Windows 10 Enterprise
This one has imaging options for businesses along with long term service agreements, managed updates, etc.

Windows 10 Education
For schools. Details are sketchy, but this will likely be offered as an alternative to Chromebooks (and Macs…)

Windows 10 Embedded
Used in Point-of-Sale terminals, ATM’s, medical equipment, shop floor equipment, cars?

Windows 10 IoT
This one is for Internet of Things devices like Raspberry Pi (I’ll be showing this in TechOne), WiFi routers, gateways, etc.

If you're adventurous and have a spare Windows 7 PC lying around, you can try out the Windows 10 Consumer Preview - just sign up for the Windows Insider program at https://insider.windows.com and then download the .iso at https://windows.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/preview-iso. It's not terribly difficult to do and you'll get a chance to play with Windows 10 before it's released in a month or two.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Throwback Tuesday - Light Phone

Here’s a bit of “new” technology that harkens back to the days when phones were just, well... phones. 

It’s called Light Phone and it looks like it will be really easy to use – you can only use it to make and receive calls. No messaging, no camera, no facebook.  

It’ll be about the size of a credit card (2” X 3” X 1/8”, 1.3 oz) and will use a dot-matrix LED display. It’s a pre-paid phone, preloaded with minutes so it might be useful as an emergency phone (20 days on standby) or a child’s first phone. You can also connect it to your existing phone (though I'm not sure exactly why you would want to do this... maybe to reduce the distractions associated with a smartphone?) Its only concession to modern phones is a 10 number speed-dial. 

It looks similar to John’s Phone, launched a couple of years ago, but maybe a little cheaper. 

It’s currently in Kickstarter funding, expected to ship in 2016 for about $100. 

Would you find value in a phone like this?



Monday, May 18, 2015

Chromebook competition from HP

HP released a small computer called the Stream Mini earlier this year to compete with the Chromebox. It’s a tiny PC with some pretty impressive specs – it’s really  looks like a better deal than a Chromebox.

Here are the specs:

  • 1.4 GHz Celeron 2957U processor
  • 2GB of RAM (max 16GB)
  • 32GB SSD
  • 200GB of OneDrive storage for 2 years
  • Keyboard and mouse included
  • Gigabit Ethernet
  • 4 USB 3 ports
  • WiFi
  • Bluetooth 4
  • SD card port
  • Audio in and out
  • DisplayPort 1.2 
  • HDMI 1.5 port
  • Windows 8.1 (Bing version) 

It’s small, about the size of a typical Chromebox, and very low power (at about 45 Watts.) Since it comes with a keyboard and mouse, all you have to add is a monitor to be up and running.

It runs Windows 8.1 (Bing version), but, apparently, there is only a trivial difference between Bing version and regular Windows 8.1. (I haven’t heard if the Bing version can be managed in an enterprise like regular 8.1.) 

At $180 (without a monitor) this seems like a great price – particularly for users who don’t need much horsepower.





Friday, May 15, 2015

Less is more - Plastc credit card replacement

I saw a prototype of the Plastc "card" at CES earlier this year and now that it’s getting ready to ship, I thought you might be interested in some details. 

Plastc is an electronic “card” that replaces all your physical cards – bank cards, credit cards, membership/rewards cards, library cards... (up to 20 of your cards can be stored.) It works just like a regular card: card readers can read it, bar code readers can read it. They’ll be adding Chip and near-field apps after launch - as these new features become available, you can update your card from your phone.

It uses an e-ink display, so it has long battery life (30 days on a charge.) You can add an image of your signature and a PIN for added security - you enter the PIN on the built-in touchscreen. It also has a digital photo ID, a proximity alert on your phone (so you won’t leave it on the table after you’ve paid for dinner) and a remote wipe feature in case you do actually lose it; after a user-selectable period away from your phone it will wipe itself. 

It comes with a card reader to transfer your current card info into it and a wireless charging mat. 

I think this would be very handy for the frequent traveler, but it’s rather expensive at $155. Currently available for pre-order, shipping this summer.



Thursday, May 14, 2015

A really tiny touch screen - Apple Watch

​I received the Apple Watch I ordered last month and I have been wearing it for a couple of days. 

The best way to demo an Apple Watch is to personalize it and connect it to an iPhone, so that’s what I did! 

Here are my impressions, so far:

  • Handy for texts:
    • You can respond from the watch with “canned” responses (OK, Yes, No, Can I get back with you later? Etc.) 
    • You can respond via voice. Voice transcription works very well.
  • Being able to phone from the watch is cool, but it will take some time to get used to
  • Other notifications (emails from VIP’s, meeting alerts, etc.) seem to work well
  • When I first got it, I had problems with notifications, but these went away when I re-installed it.
  • Battery life seems good (charge it at night, use it all day)
  • Lots of other apps like maps, weather, Shazam are handy 
  • Swiping / navigation is pretty simple
  • Notifications are “taps” on your wrist (rather than vibrations) – takes a while to get used to.
  • Siri can launch apps – handier than launching from the screen
  • Siri can send texts - just tell her who you want to text and what the text should say
  • You can do screen prints from the watch (they show up in Photos on your phone.)

Do you use one? What has been your experience? What apps do you use most?


Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A really big touchscreen Android...

Here's an interesting mash-up called the TouchJet Pond. It's an Android device that’s also a projector and uses the wall/screen as a touchscreen. It can project an 854 X 480 (obviously not HD) screen up to 80 inches though it gets dimmer the larger the screen – it’s only 80 lumens.


The Pond has a dual-core processor, 2G RAM, 18 G of internal (non-expandable) storage, WiFi and Android pre-loaded. It includes micro-USB and mini-HDMI ports, an internal speaker and a headphone jack. It’s internal battery can provide power for up to 2 hours. It’s small and light: 9 oz, 4" X 4.5" X 1". 

The “touch screen” functionality actually uses a stylus to interact with the projected display using infrared to track the stylus. You can either tap the screen/wall or use a button on the stylus to simulate a tap.

Also included is a remote with a touchpad and accelerometer that allows the remote to act as an air-mouse.

So, if you’re looking for a really big Android device, this might just be it – $600, available for order at http://www.touchjet.com/

What do you think - is there business use for a device like this?

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

New panoramic camera

Camera technology has come a long way – many of us who never carry a “real” camera are taking pictures and videos daily with our phones. (I took this one from my office window this morning... just because.)



In addition to the phone camera technology, there are some cool cameras in the conference room space. And they’re not limited to the very high-end camera systems used in the big Cisco telepresence rooms.

The new PanaCast 2 camera provides a 180° X 54° image in 4K resolution. It uses 3 cameras and seamlessly stitches together the images and sends them via USB to a PC or Mac where you can use them with Skype, WebEx, Google Hangouts, Facebook, etc. It’s plug-and-play so there are no proprietary drivers or software to download. HD stereo audio is also provided. 

They’re not cheap at $1K, but still less expensive than some of the high end proprietary cameras. Available June 2015.

Panoramic camera use is expanding in the auto market as well. Blind spot coverage and backing systems are increasingly included and 360ยบ systems, like the Infiniti AroundView system, are providing important information to drivers. As self-driving cars mature, the cameras will be key sensors in driving systems.

Could your business use this camera technology to improve monitoring, troubleshooting or productivity?



Monday, May 11, 2015

An even cheaper computer

The world's cheapest PC, The "CHIP" by The Next Thing, will start at $9 undercutting its nearest competition by 75%. It's not available yet. In fact the Kickstarter hasn't even closed (they're at 13X their target funding level with a month to go.) If they can do it, this could be the next Raspberry Pi.


The CHIP is very small (1.5" X 2.5") and includes a 1GHz processor, 0.5G RAM, 4G storage, WiFi/b/g/n and Bluetooth 4. For the geeks and makers: it includes ports for I2C/SPI, PWM, MIPI-CSI, UART, touch panel input, 8 general purpose I/O ports and onboard TFT LCD support - making it a great Internet of Things platform as well as a very cheap workstation platform.

It'll work with analog, VGI and HDMI monitors, a Bluetooth (or USB) keyboard and mouse. It comes with a version of Debian Linux so you can run lots of popular open-source software (like LibreOffice, Chromium browser, etc.)

"Kernel hacker" Alpha versions are scheduled to be out this fall and kickstarter premium units in early 2016. (You can bet I'll be playing with one in January.)

Here's a link to a video from Make that describes it in more detail: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=XkfBWAJ7kbI 

These things are getting to the price where you can start including them in really mundane devices, like light switches, process monitoring sensors and video security cameras.

The biggest challenge with these devices will be keeping them up-to-date and secure. 

Are there parts of your home or business where these ultra cheap computers might add value?



Friday, May 8, 2015

File under "huge storage option"...

Sandisk recently announced a huge flash memory array, InfiniFlash

It’s half a Petabyte (that’s half a million Gigabytes) in a 3U (17” X 5” X 25”) rack mount storage array. Because it uses flash memory - the same kind of memory used in USB thumbdrives – it’s very fast at about 50X the performance of hard disks. It’s low power as well consuming 80% less power than rotating media.

You won't likely be using one of these in your server rack at home - the cost of the array is about $1M – but that’s only $2/Gig which is actually pretty cheap for the speed and performance. (It's less than $1/Gig using  the included compression and de-duplication software.)

Here's a link to a short promo video (which also includes some flash.): 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Z-0dMWB9ZQ

Their target market is big data rather than transaction processing systems.

Seems like only yesterday when a Terabyte of storage cost this much...



Thursday, May 7, 2015

Instant prints anyone?

I take more photos with my phone than I've ever taken with a camera, but I almost never print them – typically I share them with social apps. I also use photos for reference when I’m taking something apart or to document where I parked at the airport. On those rare occasions when I do need to print something, I just do it on a color printer.

However, there may be times when an instant hardcopy makes sense – as a memento for friends or to share with one of the increasingly small number of friends or family that don’t have electronic media. It could be handy if you want to pass around photos without handing people your camera.

Or perhaps you’re doing some sort of inspection and need a “permanent” record of what you see to attach to a physical file.


If you do need a glossy, hard-copy print instantly – here’s an interesting option. It’s called the Zip Printer, by Polaroid. It prints 2” X 3” photos over Bluetooth in 10 seconds or so. It costs $150 and prints on “zero-ink” paper costing $0.50 per print. It’s small – about the size of an external hard drive – and charges with a micro-USB. There’s an app that lets you do some basic editing, but you could use other editing tools on your phone as well.

It’s definitely a niche product – what business uses can you think of for this device?

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

A mouse for my iPad?

Here’s something I've wanted for a long time: a mouse for my iPad/iPhone, specifically for accessing my Windows desktop using VDI (or Citrix.)

Most Windows access apps just don’t work very well with fat fingers on an iPad and I’ve always thought a mouse would be a very useful tool for those times I need to access my VDI desktop from the road.

Turns out Citrix has one: a Bluetooth mouse called the X1 Mouse. Until more touch-friendly apps arrive, this will be a godsend. They announced it in January, but it should be available starting next week (no word on price or where to buy it - more later.) 

It only works with Citrix apps (Receiver, GoToMyPC, ShareConnect, etc.) but if it takes off, other suppliers like VMWare and VNC may respond with offerings of their own.

Here's a link to a video that shows it in use: https://youtu.be/9R6WcZkz-Ik 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Windows 10 on a Raspberry Pi

What does Windows 10 look like on Raspberry Pi? 

It looks like a placeholder (see welcome screen below.)

It's not really Windows 10, it's a version of Windows 10 released as part of the Windows Developer Program for IoT - there is no desktop, there are no tiles, no apps.

So, what can you do with it? 

You can develop applications on a Windows 10 box using Visual Studio 2015 Preview and transport them to the Raspberry Pi to run. 

I've loaded Windows 10 in Parallels on a Mac Mini at home to experiment with it - it was relatively easy to set up. I won't be doing this after VS 2015 goes live because of the price tag, so this is just a temporary environment.*

There's a remote debugging facility, you can write your apps in C# or C++ and you have full access to all the general purpose IO pins on the Raspberry Pi. 

When all the pieces get to production, it looks like this will be a fine, albeit somewhat expensive, development and debugging platform for folks who don't like Linux and open source tools.

For much more information, instructions and demos: http://dev.windows.com/en-us/iot 

Much more to come!

*I've heard that the Visual Studio 2015 Community version also works but I haven't tried it yet. This version is much more in line with my budget (it's free...)





Monday, May 4, 2015

Windows 10 update

Windows 10 is showing up everywhere.

I've loaded it on a Lenovo laptop, a Nokia 1020 phone and a Raspberry Pi (the Windows 10 IoT core).*

Microsoft's plan is to have the same user experience whether you’re using a Surface tablet or a phone. All the software should work alike – I saw a demo where the user hooked up an external Bluetooth keyboard and mouse and external monitor and ran Outlook on the big screen from his phone. It looked just like the PC version. Even with the betaesque version of Windows 10, I can see the potential.

Notifications should be able to span devices as well – when you clear a notification on the phone, it disappears from the desktop. Cloud based storage means that you’ll be able to access all the same files from your desktop or your phone. Even Settings looks the same across devices. Microsoft Edge works the same (this is their browser replacement for Internet Explorer.)

Windows 10 will be available for phones “later this year” and any phone running 8.1 should be able to upgrade to 10 at no charge.

As I mentioned, I've also loaded Windows 10 IoT Core on a Raspberry Pi - it's a stripped down version of Windows 10 that will be used for robotics and Internet of Things apps. In order to do anything useful with it I need a PC running Windows 10, so I’m currently attempting to load Windows 10 on a Mac Mini (using Parallels.) I’ll let you know how that turns out… 

Have you loaded Windows 10 on any of your devices? What are your impressions?

*I'm a Mac user, but since Windows will likely continue to be the business desktop OS of choice for many years, I need to keep up!
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Friday, May 1, 2015

Hackers using routers and printers

A “denial of service” attack is used by criminals to take down websites by flooding them with requests. These often use compromised PC’s, but recently researchers have been seeing attacks coming from other devices.

Researchers at NSFocus and F-Secure have reported seeing routers and Internet connected printers being used in these “DOS” attacks. These devices don’t even need to be hacked in order to participate in the attack – there’s a communication protocol called SSDP that they use that can repeatedly send information to a targeted site.

As more Internet of Things devices come on line, particularly in people's homes, it’s likely that this kind of attack will try to use them as well.

While there are defenses that can be used against these attacks, this particular one will require some infrastructure changes to fix. 

In the mean time, it’s important that you keep your devices patched and up-to-date to keep criminals from hacking them.