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.

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: 

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: 

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 ( 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 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

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.

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: 

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!