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SFR Hubster mobile Internet device

Link to French language review in DegroupNews

My comments on this mobile Internet device after reading the review

This device, provided by SFR for their “triple-play” (Box SFR, NeufBox) subscribers in France, is primarily a mobile Internet device. Primarily it is the “Webby” terminal marketed under SFR’s banner. But it isn’t the typical mobile Internet device that is in the typical handheld form. Instead, it is designed as a tabletop “mini terminal” for use in the kitchen, bedroom or home office. The French-language article even described the unit as a “mini terminal familiale” (family mini terminal).

Hence it is in the form of a small free-standing device that has a footprint similar to a small radio,with a 3.5” touchscreen LCD display that is mounted on its cone-shaped base. It will connect to your home network via WiFi (with WPA2 security and WPS “two-push” setup) or Ethernet.

The unit has IPTV functionality which works in conjunction with SFR’s IPTV service as well as Internet radio and “widget-driven” information services. The widget-based services focus typically on the local weather, financial information (stock portfolio) and your horoscope for your star sign. You can also get it to monitor RSS feeds, including audio / video podcasts and photofeeds. It has an SD card slot and USB host port so you can load digital audio files or JPEG pictures from your digital camera. A subsequent firmware version will provide for video file support. Of course the unit can work as an alarm clock that is always set to the correct time and can wake you to an Internet radio stream, a digital audio file or a buzzer sound.

When you set up the Hubster device, you will need to visit the Hubster Web site (http://hubster.sfr.fr) as part of registering it. This is where you would customise the local weather, financial and horoscope information.

The reviewers reckon that this device needs more capabilities in order to be a full-on auxiliary Internet terminal. It would need to support general Web browsing, be capable of true cordless operation by working with a battery pack and use a screen with a 16:9 aspect ratio. I would add to this list the support for common video-file formats; and at least UPnP AV / DLNA playback support so it can play media files held on PCs or NAS boxes that exist on the network. The latter functionality would be relevant to SFR “triple-play” subscribers who hook up an USB external hard drive to their “NeufBox 5” or “Box SFR” Internet gateway devices  and use the UPnP AV media server function integrated in these Internet gateway devices to stream out multimedia files held on the external hard drive.

What is this leading to?

The SFR Hubster’s main target was to compete in the nascent “connected information display” market created by WiFi-enabled electronic picture frames, Internet-enabled TVs and similar devices. Here, these devices pull up information of use to the public like news, weather and financial information from selected Web portals and present it on their displays, either as part of a continuously-changing display or on demand when a user selects a particular option on the device’s menu.

These “connected information displays” would thrive on a strong market relationship between companies involved in making or selling these display devices; and the owners of Web portal and information-streaming services as well as their content providers. This could then lead to these displays being considered the “fourth screen” of influence and companies involved in telecommunications and the Internet being considered as of influence as the classic media companies.

31 July 2009 Posted by | Future Trends, Home computer setups | , , | 3 Comments

Regular free-to-air TV in the Internet age

There have been many people who have said that regular free-to-air TV, like regular local radio or newspapers would lose out in the Internet age. But it has been able to survive the Internet challenge. This has been achieved through the technology being able to work as an adjunct to the classic media.

The Web page

One way of surviving the Internet challenge is for stations to augment their video content with a Website. This is usually achieved by the station creating a “master” Website with separate links to Websites about the various programmes on offer.

Extension to the news service

The most common beneficiary is the station’s news service where an up-to-date “electronic newspaper” is provided for all of the news that the station reports on. Typically this has been extended with key stories getting the “interactive treatment” such as data mash-ups or interactive diagrams. In most cases, a key story would have its own Web page with all articles, audio, video and interactive content that is relevant to the key story.

Another common practice is to have news stories clustered in to geographic areas local to the station’s operating territory with the user being able to “swing” between the areas. This can allow users to see more than the evening news service.

Some stations provide a moderated comment option on the stories so that they offer citizens the opportunity to speak up about the issues at hand. They also may offer the opportunity for the public to pass on news tips or still/video images for inclusion in the stories being broadcast. This allows for the broadcasters to make the audience relevant to the news broadcast.

Secondary scoreboards / leaderboards

Another common application is to turn a Web page in to a secondary scoreboard or leaderboard for a sportscast, reality TV show or similar show. This usually allows for the broadcaster to provide extra detail on the event. It is typically in the form of users gaining an always-live always-updated leaderboard independent of when the tally is shown on the TV screen, as well as user-selectable detail sheets for the contestants.

Fan sites for TV shows

The other common application is to provide a “fan site” for TV shows that are being produced by the station. This is a way of gaining extra value out of the TV shows through the provision of extra information and collateral about the show or having a sounding board for the show’s fans.

Sometimes the message boards that are part of these Websites may yield information about fan-created Websites for the shows or key personnel in the shows.

Video-on-demand / Catch-up TV

Articles

MasterChef cooks up online storm | Australian IT

Recently, most TV Websites have hosted video-on-demand material such as clips or interviews from the whole show. These may range from extended-version interviews for public-affairs shows to whole episodes of a TV serial. The last application is typically described as “catch-up” TV because of the way that users can view the prior episodes in order to catch up with the current episode.This application has come to the fore in Australia when Channel 10 screened the MasterChef cooking contest series over the last two months.

At the moment the video-on-demand service is primarily provisioned through a Web application hosted by the TV broadcaster or the TV show’s production company; or simply as files or vision that is part of the TV show’s Web page. This typically requires one to view the video material at their home computer, which will typically have a small screen, rather than on their television’s large screen.

Live IPTV broadcasts

This application is simply like Internet radio in which a live TV broadcast is streamed via the Internet’s infrastructure. It is considered a thorn in the side for the TV establishment because it allows anyone with the necessary computer hardware and software and the necessary Internet connection to broadcast to the Internet. Due to the reduced cost of this hardware, software and connection, it may allow anyone to broadcast a TV service that can be complimentary to the existing broadcasters’ offerings or totally work against the grain that the existing broadcasters have laid out.

For example, the established US TV networks and cable channels may see themselves being threatened by this concept if, for example, an IPTV broadcaster sets itself up to run content services in a similar manner to Australia’s SBS. This situation may draw people who are living in the big cities or the college towns away from the kind of content typically run by these broadcasters.

This same application is also part of “single-pipe triple-play” Internet services where a multi-channel TV service is provided as part of an Internet and VoIP telephony service. These services are already common in some countries like France and are starting to come on the map in countries like the USA where fibre-optic broadband services are being deployed.

The effect and benefits

One effect of this technology I have noticed is that some normally technology-shy friends that I know are using the Internet extras to gain more value out of their favourite TV shows. This has allowed these shows to work as a bridge to them gaining more out of online technology and becoming comfortable with it.

Similarly, the Web pages have encouraged people to bring laptop computers in to the lounge area where the TV is and use these computers to log on to the Web sites associated with the TV shows they are viewing.

Current issues

Most of the online TV content is pitched for viewing on a computer rather than on a regular TV set. This is because the accepted culture is for the content to be seen only as complementary to the existing broadcaster’s offerings.

But some providers are trying to bring the broadband service to the TV through various set-top-box platforms. These platforms would be extensions of any open-standard or proprietary interactive-TV platforms that are in service or being developed like DVB-MHP or Tivo’s proprietary interactive-TV platform. Similarly, the Consumer Electronics Association, a US trade group who represent consumer-electronics manufacturers, distributors and retailers, have established a standard for bringing the Web to the TV.

Similarly, there is the issue of controlling and monetising the video content that passes across the Web. This is typically of concern when high-value content such as sports, movies or headline TV series are concerned. It has also affected the idea of establishing free-to-air or subscription IP-TV services which can complement or compete with existing TV services. It can be typically answered through the provision of software DRM systems but they have to be designed to be robust, secure and less onerous for the customer.

The other key issue is providing an IPTV viewing experience that is akin to viewing regular TV. This usually involves providing a channel list that allows for “up-down” channel-surfing, numeric “direct-entry” selection, as well as selection through a menu. It also will involve providing high quality-of-service so that the viewing experience is akin to watching regular TV where there is good reception. At the moment, this is typically provided through a closed set-top-box environment but there is activity taking place for it to work with devices like television sets and PVRs that are standards-compatible. Similarly, a lot of currently-released routers are supporting quality-of-service management in order to prioritise multimedia data transfer across the network.

Conclusion

At the moment, the online experience provided by most regular TV broadcasters and producers is directed towards the computer screen but, if it is to challenge the status quo, it will need to appear across all of the three screens (TV, computer and mobile / PDA), especially the TV screen.

Once these current issues are overcome, then IPTV can become more prevalent either as a free-to-air or subscription medium.

9 July 2009 Posted by | Future Trends, IP-based broadcasting | , | Leave a comment

HP Unveils the First Web Connected, TouchSmart Printer for the Digital Home | eHomeUpgrade

HP Unveils the First Web Connected, TouchSmart Printer for the Digital Home | eHomeUpgrade

My Comments on this Web-enabled printer

When I first read about Hewlett-Packard’s Web-connected printer in this article, I thought that the idea may not be real but they have followed the same path as the recent crop of Web-enabled TVs and the smartphones that are part of most currently-running mobile-phone service contracts. This all-in-one printer could be the start of another development arena for these devices, allowing for a new scope of applications that are “printer-based”. These could include “print-on-demand” like the initial offerings from Google (calendars), Web Sudoku (sudoku puzzles) and DreamWorks Animation (colouring-in sheets) and extend to such applications as image-upload interface points for photo-sharing / social-networking sites and online file storage services.

If this idea pulls off for printers and “all-in-one” devices, then it could lead to other devices that are capable of working with the home network being able to work with the Web and the home network in a manner beyond their obvious design. For this to be achievable, the devices would have to work on platforms like the Windows CE / Windows Mobile platform, the Symbian S-series or UIQ platforms or the Android platform and allow an easy yet secure way of installing the software.

25 June 2009 Posted by | Future Trends, Network hardware design | , , | Leave a comment

Network Connectivity Joins the AV Club – or Ethernet connectivity via AV equipment-connection cables

 Network Connectivity Joins the AV Club | ABI Research

Cite from press release

Over the past few weeks, a couple of announcements around consumer electronics connectivity have caught my eye. In late April, the DiiVA Interactive TV standard was announced after a year of development, with the backing of mainstream CE manufacturers LG, Panasonic, and Samsung, along with the Chinese government and a number of major Chinese CE manufacturers. The DiiVA standard was designed to integrate HD Video, multi-channel audio and bi-directional data (Ethernet and USB) in a single cable. Then, just last week, the HDMI Licensing group announced the HDMI 1.4 specification, which will integrate Ethernet connectivity within the HDMI cable.

My Comments on this concept

The concept behind the DiiVA stamdard and HDMI 1.4 is to cut down the “spaghetti junction” that exists behind a home-entertainment system by avoiding the need to run an Ethernet cable between each Internet-enabled AV device and the home network.

The current problem is that most Internet-enabled equipment that is in the field will require use of a direct network connection, typically an Ethernet cable, even if the AV setup includes equipment that has the new connections. As the standards gain traction, users will have to work out which component will be the interface to the home network; and some equipment will need to always have a direct connection to the home network as well as support for Ethernet connection via the new standards.

When the standard reaches momentum, I would still prefer that certain classes of equipment always have an Ethernet socket or MoCA/HomePlug AV interface. Primarily, I would require that a television set (with built-in TV tuner); and a surround-sound receiver would have the home-network interface. Similarly, I would require that devices performing the role of a surround-sound receiver like “home theatre in box” systems and single-piece “soundbars” be equipped with the home network connectivity. This is typically to allow one to assure network connectivity to all consume AV-equipment setups that use these connections, as these setups evolve. Some AV peripherals like optical-disc players or games consoles may just rely on their network connectivity coming via the AV connection.

Another factor that needs to be worked out with this connection setup is making sure that the network-enabled AV setup just works. Issues that can impede this ideal could include “network collision loops” where devices that are directly connected to the home network and are interconnected with network-enabled connections create an infinite data loop. This can lead to extensive operational and performance difficulties, similar to when a laptop is connected to a WiFi router with an Ethernet cable while its WiFi network functionality is active. This issue could be addressed by the use of a priority-based algorithm for determining the data flow in the AV setup.

Once these issues are addressed, these connection standards should then lead to trouble-free network-enabled home AV for all setups no matter how sophisticated they are. Similarly, this could lead to such concepts as the AV devices providing extra network services such as in-fill WiFi access points or Ethernet switches.

4 June 2009 Posted by | Future Trends, Network Management, UPnP AV / DLNA | , , | 2 Comments

The Mobile Internet Devices becoming the trend for this year

O2’s Joggler, formerly OpenFrame, launches in UK this April

Over the past few months, a new device category has started to emerge in the form of the Mobile Internet Device. It would have the functionality of one of today’s smartphones except for cellular voice and data communications.

The device would link to a home or other network using 802.11g or 802.11n WPA2 wireless or use a Bluetooth-connected mobile phone as its modem when it wants to benefit from the Internet. They will work as a media player, a games machine or an Internet-based information device. Some of these devices may benefit from extra software being downloaded on to them through a Web portal set up by their manufacturer or supplier. The primary user interface on all of these devices is a touch screen, but they may have extra keys for access to regular functions. They would mainly use a standard or micro SD card and / or built-in flash memory as their user storage and have their software loaded on other flash memory.

Interestingly, Clarion, one of the most respected car-audio brands, had developed the ClarionMIND which is a combination of a portable navigation device and a mobile Internet device. This gadget provides in-car and on-foot satellite navigation as well as Internet information access and media playback. If it is installed in a matching dock, the unit works like a high-end portable navigation device, passes its audio through the car stereo system and matches its display to “day” or “night” mode according to how you operate the car’s headlight switch.

The iPod Touch was one such device that predicted this device-category trend. It had the ability to play or show media held within it and was able to benefit from a wireless home network by being able to browse the web or add on software through the iTunes App Store.

But could they make the smartphone or connected electronic picture frame / portable navigation device / portable media player redundant? Not really. I would see them as a companion device for all mobile phones and a device which can perform functions complementary to these other devices.

For example, a mobile Internet device could become a DLNA Digital Media Controller / UPnP AV Control point for the DLNA Home Media Network. Similarly, they could perform other control functions that are becoming part of networked home automation. As well, they could be seen as an alternative to handheld games consoles by being able to download games from the Web portal. Other applications would include Web activities where very little text entry needs to be done such as monitoring information pages.

It would be certainly interesting to see how the new Mobile Internet Devices fit in to the personal computing ecosystem as they start to appear on the market.

5 March 2009 Posted by | Future Trends, Mobile Computing | , , , | 5 Comments