Thursday, December 16, 2010

High Hopes for ChromeOS

Google held an event last week that provided more detail on their efforts surrounding ChromeOS and announced a pilot program. There seems to be much confusion around two questions:
1) What is it?
2) Why should I care?

I can address #1 somewhat. ChromeOS is an operating system Google is making available to partner computer manufacturing companies that boots straight into the Chrome Web Browser and really restricts itself to using the web. The concept is that people using netbooks and even full-power laptops and desktops often spend the majority of their time in the web browser. Google has improved the Chrome Web browser, incentivized web app developers by adding a web app store, simplified the operating system to running this single application, baked in the latest security capabilities in a user-friendly fashion, and dictated inclusion of up-to-date wifi and 3G radios in the hardware so that users can be almost always connected.

So, why should you care? Google partially answers that question here:
For myself, manufacturers should be able to turn this platform into cheap, simple to use, long battery-lived, quick access computers that do nearly all the things people do on today's computers and more. Powerful applications can run on powerful servers instead of requiring you to lug around beefier hardware. Simple applications stay simple, are always up to date, and don't expose your data to loss or theft when, inevitably, the computer is damaged or lost. The frustrating days of paying thousands of dollars for a laptop, then hundreds or thousands more for applications, loading it up with private info, personally owned media, and precious memories, only to leave it in the airport security line and lose everything may soon be behind us.

Google's CR-48 pilot program demonstrates all these benefits for some, however, access to them remains in the future for the larger marketplace. Google's pilot program demonstrates what can be done but its up to other parties to carry this forward. Manufacturers need to come out with compelling hardware at a reasonable price, soon. Developers need to leverage the power of HTML5 in their web apps to make them perform like locally-installed apps. More web development of private cloud technology is necessary so that people and businesses have a secure place to keep their info that doesn't belong to a third party. Finally, wireless carriers need to get on-board. Nobody wants yet another 2 year, $60/month contract tied to a single, limited device. I really don't want to pay by the byte, either, (would you want to pay for your electricity by the electron?) but that appears to be the way things are headed. The 100MB/month free setup Verizon includes with Google's CR-48 pilot program is encouraging but it remains to be seen what will be offered with real products. Here's hoping it all comes together

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Why Is My Home WiFi Flaky?

I spent probably way too much on an Apple Time Capsule a couple years ago. In an attempt to get my money's worth, I have been trying to get alot of use out of it. Its supposed to do alot: dual band (2.4 and 5 GHz) WiFi, Gigabit Ethernet, 1 TB network-shared hard drive built-in, and a host of other Appley features. Since nearly every WiFi device is compatible with 2.4 GHz, I've left it in that mode for those couple years. The coverage is flaky, however. Videos studder, even when I'm playing them from a share from another computer in the house, and sometimes connections just drop. In an attempt to find out why, I read up on and downloaded a free program called InSSIDer which produces a handy graph of all the WiFi networks in range and what channel they're on. Here's what I found:
2.4 GHz Networks
2.4 GHz Networks

5 GHz Networks
5 GHz Networks
(Network names are obfuscated to protect the innocent) There are multiple, overlapping networks in range at every available channel in the 2.4 GHz spectrum. While the WiFi specs have algorithms in place to continue operating in spite of all the interference, they're pushed to the limit by all the overlapping networks. By contrast, there are far more channels in the 5 GHz spectrum and only a single network in range. A 5 GHz network in my house could easily operate without any interference from neighborhood WiFi networks.

Luckily, or so I thought, the Time Capsule supports 5 GHz WiFi, as well. As I found when I switched it over to 5 GHz mode, however, the performance was dismal. Despite having no other networks interfering with it, speeds and reliability in 5 GHz mode were even lower in some cases than in the overcrowded 2.4 GHz mode. It was actually worse when my laptop was in the same room as the Time Capsule, so range isn't the cause. After using jperf to take some actual throughput measurements at a few places in the house and comparing them to what competing wireless routers can do (2-7x faster in on-line reviews), I've decided to retire the Apple Time Capsule. Since I've got the Windows Home Server handling backup of both PCs and Macs in the house, now, even its use as a Time Machine backup target is no longer relevant. What a colossal waste of money.

Don't Get Me an Internet TV Device for Christmas

A startling and confusing array of Internet TV devices have been launched over the recent months, all competing to be your gadget of choice for getting internet content onto your TV. Even more confusing to most folks is why they would want such a device since none of them gives us access to the full web we see on our computers. I was in the middle of drafting another diatribe on the topic when I came across this series of posts from Tim Higgins over at

That link is to his most recent post where he comes to the same conclusion I have: Its all a big waste unless deals are cut with the content companies. He comes to another conclusion that the best device for watching internet content on your TV is still the computer. Apparently, content license owners are coming to the same conclusion and exerting more control over what they make available online. Just tonight, my wife and I sat down to watch back episodes of a show a good friend turned us onto - The Big Bang Theory - and we've become hooked on. Its not on Hulu, Netflix, CBS (who broadcasts it), and though it shows up in Amazon's VOD service, you get this annoying message:
Amazon licensing error message

It's a not so subtle reminder of who, exactly, is in charge of what we watch, when. Like it or not, our options are to wait for the license owners to come around or work around them and be labelled a "pirate." As nifty as the Internet TV devices are, technologically, I don't want to be in tonight's situation of searching all over, site by site, only to be thwarted by someone else's "licensing agreements." And, as Tim Higgins points out, even the best of the available devices still have their bugs to be worked out.