Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The venerable iPod classic lives on...

Photo credit: iLounge.com
Every year around this time my colleagues and I at  discuss whether this will be the year that Apple discontinues the iPod classic. Although the old hard-drive based model continues to be the only truly high-capacity device in Apple's lineup, it also ends up looking more and more like a dinosaur next to every other new model. 

The iPod classic saw its last update in 2009 -- now four years ago -- and even that was a relatively minor update, little more than a capacity bump over the 120GB 2008 model, and no real physical design changes from the original 2007 classic. 

Over the first couple of years, the reasons why it survived seemed pretty obvious. Not only was it representative of Apple's roots -- the original, iconic, iPod -- but there were a lot of music fans out there who still wanted a way to carry around a relatively large music library. When the iPod classic was last updated, the highest-capacity Apple offered in any other device was the 32GB iPhone 3GS and iPod touch, and even the iPad was nothing more than a rumour. It also debuted alongside a fifth-generation iPod nano with the same general design, so it really continued to feel like part of the iPod family, in a lineup where the iPod touch was still finding its place.

Even as Apple's iOS devices jumped to 64GB capacities the following year, an obvious place remained for a 160GB device that could store and access all of your music without relying on wireless networks. Wireless data plans could still be slow and expensive, and on-demand music streaming services such as Spotify and Rdio hadn't really caught on, providing few options for cloud-based music.

With the debut of iTunes Match the following year, however, it seemed that this might finally be the nail in the coffin for the iPod classic. The limited capacity of an iPhone or iPod touch was no longer an issue when you could access your entire music collection from iTunes in the Cloud anywhere that a data connection was available. Combined with automatic caching of played tracks and the ability to download entire playlists for offline use, it really seemed that the iPod classic was no longer nearly as relevant. Even for the cost-conscious consumer, $25/year seemed like an incredibly reasonable price to pay for access to your entire  music library from anywhere.

In fact, it was iTunes Match that made me finally retire my iPod classic for once and for all. Prior to that, I had kept my classic around for things like road trips, where I might want to pull up a song that wouldn't otherwise be on my iPhone. This was often mostly a "safety blanket" however, and the advent of iTunes Match gave me enough of a comfort zone in that regard that the iPhone was suddenly the only device I needed to carry with me.

Now two years after the debut of iTunes Match, the iPod classic lives on, unchanged in the past four years, but still sold. Granted, even 128GB iPhone and iPod touch options have still not surfaced, and again not everyone wants to rely on a data plan. Plus, maybe Apple really doesn't want to retire the iconic, original "iPod" design.

Still, I continue to be surprised every time that the iPod classic hangs on for yet another year. Do you still think there's a place for the iPod classic in Apple's lineup, or is it just a dinosaur waiting to be put out of its misery?

Monday, September 02, 2013

A cool slice of Raspberry Pi


It may not look like much, but this little gizmo is actually now powering my entire home phone system, courtesy of Freeswitch and VoiP.ms.

The device in question is a Raspberry Pi -- a small, $35 ARM-based GNU/Linux box, essentially a credit-card sized computer. I ordered one last week, partly with the interest in turning it into a phone server, but mostly just to play around with. The unit itself is about as basic as it comes -- 512MB of RAM, an SD card slot, two USB ports, composite video + HDMI output, and a single Ethernet jack -- but it's actually more capable than one would expect for $35. No internal storage is provided -- you basically supply your own SD card -- and it's powered over a micro-USB connection using a 5V adapter. By the time the dust settled, the whole package ran me about $75, including shipping, for which I received the unit itself, a case, power adapter, and small micro-USB cable (I probably could have supplied my own power adapter, but the voltage requirements are very precise, so for the extra $10 I opted to go for the one sold with the unit, just to be safe).

My interest in setting up a telephony server stemmed from having switched over to VoIP.ms about a month ago, having previously been on Vonage for several years. Since my wife and I both have cell phones, we don't really use our home number for much other than as a common "household" point-of-contact, and $1/month is pretty hard to beat for a basic number. VoIP.ms also provides a number of call routing and phone management features well beyond what I could do with Vonage, such as routing based on caller ID, DISA, ring groups,  and time of day routing, just to name a few. 

This of course whet my appetite for doing other, even cooler stuff that was a bit beyond what VoIP.ms could easily provide, and since the service is quite capable of routing any (or all) of your DIDs to a telephony server, it can also work as a great and inexpensive way for providing PSTN access without having to mess with additional analog line hardware. One of the initial incentives to set up my own server was support for ZRTP encryption, which is something that VoIP.ms sadly does not provide any support for. I also liked the idea of being able to craft more sophisticated call routing plans for various special use cases -- situations I'd never expect a third-party service to actually handle.

So, after a weekend of Geeking Out™I managed to successfully get Freeswitch up and running on the Raspberry Pi with a surprisingly minimal amount of effort. The procedure for compiling Freeswitch was surprisingly straightforward, and the standard Raspbian Linux distribution has all of the necessarily tools readily available. The only downside is that since the Raspberry Pi doesn't have the fastest CPU on the block by a long shot, the build process will take several hours -- a problem I was sadly reminded of when I discovered that I had forgotten to compile in ZRTP support the first time around, and therefore had to basically start over.

When the dust settled, however, I was pleasantly surprised how capable of a little device the Raspberry Pi is for this purpose, while also being the kind of unobtrusive little thing you could hide away anywhere that has a power source and an Ethernet connection available (in stark contrast to something like this). While I don't need it to handle more than two or three simultaneous calls, I actually tested it with up to about a dozen connections -- both separate calls and conference calls -- which it handled without skipping a beat. My home phones are connected through the same Linksys SPA2012 ATA that I was using for VoIP.ms directly -- I simply logged into the box and changed the credentials to point to my Freeswitch server instead and they just happily carried on from there, and each of the two ports can also now act as a separate "extension" allowing me to basically have a separate "line" for each phone.  I use Groundwire on my iOS and Android devices, which works quite well and optionally supports ZRTP encryption, albeit with an additional in-app purchase. 

To give you an idea, here are just a couple of the cool things I've been able to do courtesy of running my own Freeswitch server:

My building lobby intercom works by dialling my home phone number, and therefore travels over the standard PSTN. The door is activated simply by pressing "9" on my phone keypad when I receive a call. These calls carry a unique Caller ID, however, and I can therefore treat incoming lobby calls differently from any other calls to my home phone number. Firstly, I don't let them go to voicemail -- there's really no point. I can also forward these calls to additional numbers, such as my cell phone, allowing me to let myself in if I forget my keys, or let somebody else in for things like deliveries when I'm out.

The really cool trick here, however, is setting up my system to allow me to use a secret passcode to let myself in. I basically programmed Freeswitch to pre-answer calls from the lobby with a "fake" first ring. To the person on the other end, it simply sounds like the line has started ringing, however it's actually reading in DTMF touchtones. If the correct sequence is entered, Freeswitch sends out a DTMF "9" tone, opening the door. Otherwise, the call simply transfers to the normal home phones to be dealt with normally.

I've used the same trick to setup a "stealth" DISA feature. DISA, or Direct Inward System Access, is a feature whereby you can dial in from any external line and get an "internal" dialtone to do with as you please, allowing you to place calls as if you're on one of your own phones. This can be useful in situations where you only have a payphone or somebody else's phone available and want to make calls from your own number for either caller ID or billing purposes. Most DISA solutions simply answer the phone and prompt the user for a password in much the same way as a voicemail system would. The "fake first ring" trick, however, can be used on my normal inbound line to allow me to get DISA access by calling my own number and simply knowing to enter the appropriate PIN code during the first ring. If the incorrect code is entered -- or nothing at all -- the call simply proceeds as it normally would.

One of the other cool tricks that running your own telephony system allows for is fun and games with Caller ID, however I'll save that one for a future post...

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Milk in Bags?

Photo credit: The Canadian Design Resource
Yup. Here in this part of Canada we have been buying our milk in large plastic bags since the early 80s. It either never occurred to me or I'd simply forgotten that this is something unique up here, and many of my friends south of the border have probably never seen such a thing.

While traditional cardboard cartons are still used for the 250ml/500ml/1L/2L sizes, if your family drinks a reasonable amount of milk (and who doesn't if you have kids?) the 4L size is definitely the most economical. You'll pay around $5.50-$6 for a 4L sack that contains three individual 1.33L bags, as compared to around $4.50-$5 for a 2L cardboard carton.


Photo credit: The Canadian Design Resource
A plastic milk pitcher is used to hold the bags, and these are generally so durable that most families only ever need to buy one -- I'm still using the one I bought about 20 years ago when I first moved out on my own.

Basically you just drop the bag into the pitcher, shake it a couple of times to make sure it's in properly, then snip the corner of the bag to pour. When you're done, you pull the bag out, drain out the last few drops and then toss it in your household trash.

While this may seem a bit more cumbersome than simply opening a cardboard carton, if it's what you've been used to for your entire life, it actually seems quite straightforward. It also has the added advantage of reducing waste.


Sunday, May 12, 2013

Physical Cards, eCards, and Apple Cards

+Jesse Wojdylo asked an interesting question on Google+ this morning that I really hadn't given much thought to previously: How do people prefer to send out Mother's Day cards?

While the usual question centers around physical cards vs eCards, I actually realized that I've been getting the best of both worlds ever since Apple came out with its "Cards" app for iOS a couple of years ago.

As a technology person, physical cards have not only always seemed a bit "low-tech" for me, but also require me to actually do things in the real world such as going to a store and buying one, and then finding a postage stamp and actually getting it into a mailbox. For somebody who rarely has to deal with sending out physical mail, this is actually a more complicated process than it sounds -- there have been times in the past that a card has actually sat on my desk for a week simply waiting for me to go to the post office to buy a stamp.

Further, physical cards have an impersonal component to them. You're basically going to the Hallmark store and trying to choose from among a series of trite sayings written by some team of folks at a card company. It's rare that I find a card that precisely expresses what I want to actually say, so I usually end up buying either a blank card or something very basic and then chicken-scratching my own thoughts in penmanship that only my mother can read.

eCards of course solve much of these issues, especially those you can customize. However, they lack much of the traditional sentiment associated with sending out an actual physical card that can be displayed on the mantle or hung on the Christmas tree.

Enter the Apple Cards app. This provides an elegant "hybrid" solution that provides the best of both worlds. I can choose from several general design templates and get a professional looking Letterpress card that I'm able to customize with my own photos and text. I then supply a mailing address and pay $5 to have the card printed and mailed directly to the recipient. In the end, my mother gets a very nice physical card that she can display and keep and I get to say exactly what I want to say while avoiding the logistical hassle of shopping for, deciding upon, and mailing out a physical card. The only slight downside is that delivery outside of the U.S. can take a couple of weeks, so a bit of advance planning is required if you want the card to arrive on time.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

So, what is the point of Google Glass again?

Jolie O'Dell, VentureBeat:
In my moral universe, Google Glass for consumers can only serve to distract us, not truly help us any more, better, or faster than the other tools we already use. For example, you already have Google Maps to guide you around your city with turn-by-turn audio navigation. That tool doesn’t get any better when it’s smack-dab against your eyeball. Neither does your email or your Instagram feed or your Facebook account.


While Jolie O'Dell's full article is definitely worth a read as one of the first interesting counterpoints to all of the hype around Google Glass, I felt this one quote was a particularly good point that many in the tech blogosphere have missed in their effort to sing the praises of Google Glass and dream up real-world consumer uses for it. While the potential for practical professional uses are myriad, as a consumer product Google Glass seems like the proverbial solution in desperate search of solving some real-world problem that average people are actually having.

I can't think of a single instance where I've ever thought, "Gee, pulling out my iPhone is far too inconvenient. I wish I could just have my Facebook feed or e-mail right in my eyeball." In fact, for me the opposite is far more true -- I actually like the fact that my iPhone is in my pocket when I don't want to be distracted by whatever may be happening on the Internet.  Such as when I'm playing with my daughter, or having dinner out with my wife or friends, or perhaps just doing something like watching a movie.

In fact, one could argue that this is the same design logic that goes into things like Google TV. Some tech enthusiasts may love the idea of being able to access their social media stream or look something up on Wikipedia or IMDb during their favourite movie. However, from my own -- admittedly anecdotal -- sample of friends and family I suspect that these folks are in the minority.  In my world I generally prefer to actually watch the movie without distractions. On rare occasions I may want to look something up, such as an actor's bio, but my smartphone is usually within reach and provides a more appropriate context by allowing me to pick it up, find what I need, and then put it away and return to the movie. Having that information available "in my face" might be more convenient in that particular moment, but ultimately it becomes too accessible and takes me away from what I'm actually doing.

Pulling out your smartphone is an important contextual shift, both psychologically and as a social signal to others. It clearly communicates both to your own mind and to others around you that you're going into a different "mode" allowing you to effectively separate your interaction with the real world from your interaction with your mobile device. The same applies with most other physical items such as reading a book or newspaper or simply looking at photographs. Google Glass promises -- or threatens, depending on your point of view -- to remove that contextual distinction, blending the real world and the virtual world into a single, unified consciousness. There are definitely those who see this as a good thing, but ultimately I believe that it will create a newer and more dangerous kind of distraction -- people being distracted without even realizing that they're being distracted.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Switching to Blogger, courtesy of the Google+ Halo Effect

So I've decided to switch over to Blogger, driven mostly by the "halo" effect of Google+.

Let me start by being perfectly frank: I don't do much "blogging" per se. My day job writing for iLounge keeps me pretty busy on that side, not to mention the trials and tribulations of being a stay-at-home dad in the midst of it all.  In addition, when I feel I might have something particularly interesting to say, I generally simply turn to Google+ and post it directly there.

Despite this, however, for some reason I've always still felt the need to have a blog. Maybe it's just because that's what the cool kids are all doing, or maybe it's just that it's more of my own personal space to write my musings in the off chance that anybody ever wants to read them. To be fair, my blog also pre-dates the modern evolution of social media, so there's been an impetus to keep it alive for legacy reasons.

My blog has found its way from a couple of non-CMS web page iterations in the very early days, over to a self-hosted WordPress site, and then from there over to Tumblr, which is where it has lived for the past couple of years. I moved away from WordPress largely because I didn't do enough blogging to justify the headaches involved in keeping it up to date, and although I could have gone with a hosted WordPress solution, I chose Tumblr at the time because it seemed like it was more integrated with social media, and had its own sort of pseudo-social network thing going on. I had also looked at Posterous and Blogger at the time, and I'm kind of glad I dodged the Posterous bullet, and Blogger just seemed a bit too basic back then.

That said, my interest in Tumblr was never strong as it really was a silo until itself in many ways, and I found myself visiting it less and less -- especially after Google+ arrived a couple of years ago. Tumblr has done some nice things with its iOS apps and site, especially recently, but in the end it continues to feel like yet-another-place-to-visit.  I already spend my time hanging out on Google+, Facebook and Twitter (not always in that order), so to keep Tumblr on that list just doesn't make much sense, and if I"m not really going there, I'm not really benefiting from having a blog over there.

So, with the recent arrival of Google+ integrated comments, it seemed that it was time to take another look at Blogger. I consider G+ to be my primary social network these days, so the idea that I could have a blog with tighter integration seemed to make a lot of sense. Not that I ever get that many (any?) comments on my stuff, but G+ seems like a much better solution for this than Disqus ever was.

It seems Blogger has grown up a bit since the last time I looked, with not only G+ comments, but some nice themes and customizations available that don't require getting into HTML and CSS coding.  Tighter integration with Google+, social sharing buttons (I had to code those manually in Tumblr), and better analytics also round out the list of nice features. The only downside is that there doesn't appear to be any easy path for migration from Tumblr -- the few that I could find either don't exist any more, or don't work properly, requiring more messing around such as going at it via WordPress. Fortunately, I have few enough posts that I don't mind doing so manually, and have already moved a good portion over just last night.

Ultimately, it will be interesting to see if this move actually encourages me to blog a bit more. I definitely find the interface easier to work in for traditional writing, and the "newness" of a different platform may encourage me to visit more and therefore write more.  I'm also hoping the G+ integration will provide a bit more exposure, thereby providing some opportunities for feedback and actual conversation -- I'm looking forward to seeing what the integrated nature of the comments actually offers in the long run.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Does a cheaper iPhone really mean Apple is doomed?

Peter Cohan, Forbes:
A cheaper iPhone marks a fundamental shift in strategy to Low Cost Producer. And it is highly unlikely that Apple — with its enormous fixed costs including a $5 billion headquarters complex under construction in Cupertino – will be able to lower its costs below competitors’ in order to win as the industry’s low cost producer.
I think many analysts and pundits are making far too much of the "cheap iPhone" as if it's a leading product that Apple expects to somehow save the iPhone or make it relevant again. They seem to forget that Apple has had a "cheap iPhone" for over two years now -- it's called the "two-year-old model." When the iPhone 4S first came out, Apple continued selling the iPhone 3GS as an entry-level unit - $0 on contract in most cases - and the iPhone 4 took up the middle position. With the release of the iPhone 5, those positions went to the iPhone 4 and 4S, respectively.

The problem is that this year, an iPhone 5S will come out. Traditionally, this would drop the iPhone 5 into the middle-tier, and the iPhone 4S would become the "cheap iPhone." Problem is that the iPhone 5 was a major shift for Apple -- it got a 4" screen and the new Lightning connector. An iPhone 5S would presumably follow the same path, leaving the iPhone 4S looking like the completely orphaned stepchild ( "One of these things is not like the others..." :) ).

In this case, a "new" cheap iPhone - let's call it the iPhone 5C - makes a lot more sense, since it could fill that bottom tier while presenting a unified product line. Suddenly, the lineup becomes 5C/5/5S instead of 4S/5/5S. 4" screens across the board, and Lightning connectors everywhere.

Further who doesn't doubt that Apple wants to kill the Dock Connector as soon as it possibly can? I think even the hastily thrown together fourth-generation iPad was a good example of that, since now Apple has a product that can easily replace the iPad 2 as the "lower-end" iPad model when the fifth-generation iPad arrives. Ditto for the iPod touch, since after all the iPhone is the only iOS product that Apple continues to sell three models of. Suddenly, every product Apple is selling uses their shiny new Lightning connector and the old 30-pin connector becomes a distant memory.