Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Another iPad problem, or rather a 'feature' -- the mute switch

I ran into another issue on the Apple iPad that is another interesting reflection on software and Man-Machine Interface issues that are becoming more and more prevalent and important in our lives.

It appeared that all of a sudden several of my video playback apps on my iPads quit playing audio. The video was streaming fine, but in total silence. Being a standard human user, I immediately and it turns out incorrectly jumped to the conclusion that the apps that were silent had some type of bug.

After taking a step back and turning my 'logic brain' back on, what I have found is that the apps that were silent are the ones working correctly. And the combination of my incorrect operation of a new function on the iPad and other apps incorrectly ignoring this function is the root cause of the 'silence' I was encountering.

With the new release of the iPad's iOS operating system, Apple changed the function of a small switch on the upper right side of the iPad. The switch is just above the volume up/down buttons. Prior to the 4.2.1 release of iOS, the switch locked the screen orientation, so that rotating the iPad did not cause the screen to change orientation. With the latest release of iOS, this orientation lock function was moved to a software button located in the 'task bar' of the iOS system and the function of the physical switch was change to a sound mute function. Moving the switch to the down position, mutes the sound output. Moving the switch up, un-mutes the iPad and allows the volume up and down buttons to change the sound level.

There has been considerable debate online about these changes in these user interface functions. Even to the extent that for jailbroken iPads, there is a way to put the functions back to their original definition. When I started to use the new functions, I found the new definitions to be more useful, but this one of the challenges that UI developers face, there is NOT one standard way that people are comfortable with.

And I believe that this 'multiple ways of doing things' challenge is what has lead, at least partially, to the problem that I encountered with the sound playback on the iPad.

What I have found, is that there a number of apps that are ignoring the mute switch position and generate sound output regardless of the position of this switch. Apps that are ignoring the mute switch, include Apple's own YouTube app and Netflix. I think the first problem is that there is a way outside the operating system to ignore the switches function. Especially in such a controlled hardware/software environment as the iPhone/iPad world, being able to 'repurpose' this hardware does seem to be a bug from Apple's perspective. Second, is that apps are either ignoring the mute switch on purpose or have failed in their updates to correctly adapt to this change in system level UI functionality.

So what I've found, is that thru my own poor 'ass-umptions' that the apps that were silent were the ones with the problem and due to the combo of apps ignoring the new function and Apple allowing this to occur I see another big occurrence of software causing a lot of consternation in the daily lives of people operating electronic devices. We face some big issues as software continues to rule!


iPad button problem, looks like a software issue

This issue I have recently encountered on one of my iPads supports the unfortunate fact that there is a lot of computer and electronic hardware that gets returned because the products seem to exhibit hardware problems. When in fact, there are either software bugs or 'software features' that make it appear that there are problems with the hardware, but the hardware is just fine.

I started to see the home button on the front of the iPad to quit responding. You would push it and nothing would happen, so you could not exit apps, bring up the task manager or any other function that required the button to respond to a push. The problem was very intermittent, sometimes it was completely non-functioning and other times worked fine. I tried cleaning the button area and removing the iPad from the Apple case, at first this seemed to improve the issue. But then it came back. The button does appear to be a mechanical button, unlike the capacitive buttons that many of the Android devices use.

I should note here that, sad but true, I own three iPads, and this unit was the only one showing the problem. This was reenforcing my belief that I had a hardware issue on just the one iPad.

I searched Google and found others with similar symptoms. A number of people were going to the Apple store and getting their iPads replace. I decided to make an appointment with the local Apple Genius Bar at the Santa Barbara store. I went in and the helpful technician was able to duplicate the problem with me there, though I sensed she remained skeptical. Her next step was to request that the iPad be totally reset, wiped and reinstalled as a new iPad. We did this in the store and I gave it another 'button pushing' spin, with the iPad cleared of all apps and data. I thought that I could reproduce the problem still, but it seemed to have significantly reduced. The technician at this point was willing to swap out my iPad for a replacement unit.  She was multitasking and helping another person at the same time, so I continued to test by button. After about 10 minutes, I told her that I felt the problem might have been fixed, and before swapping the hardware I wanted to reinstall my data and apps and test the unit further.

The Apple Guru continued to be very helpful and said that since we had done this first 'software' reset step, and the fact was logged in the Apple Support system for this iPad, I could come back and go directly to the hardware swap step.

Well, two weeks later, I  will report that I have NOT seen the problem again. It has been a real PIA to reinstall apps and data in the unit. The Apple Guru recommended NOT restoring the backup image to the iPad. I think this has been the right route to the solution, it does appear that something in the operating system or in one of the apps I installed was causing the button to misbehave. I had installed beta releases of the iOS operating system on this machine along the way to its current state with a production release of iOS 4.2.1 (8C148).

If the problem is due to a bug in one of the apps I have on the machine, or an interaction between two or more apps, I may not have yet hit this ignition point. And there is still a small possibility that the problem is mechanical hardware related and has just gone into hiding.

However, as I said at the beginning of this post, I feel strongly that my experience and what I read in the press support the fact that there is a huge number of electronic returns that are working just fine from a hardware perspective. Electronic hardware today is amazingly robust!  But us humans are extremely fickle and quick to point the finger at incorrect sources of problems. This combined with the unfortunate fact that it is often simpler, quicker and less expensive to use a 'swap' rather than diagnose and fix route to the solution is a sad truth that poor software is causing.


Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Case improvements for iPhone 4 and iPad

Putting your iPad, iPhone or Galaxy Tab into a protective case seems to be a have to do. Other than the antenna problems of the iPhone 4, I am sometimes wondering why I spend this extra money.  But I do and  I can cite than I've not broken or badly scratched the viewing part of any of these devices as yet, so I should take that as positive value for the investment.

One of the shortcoming of many of the 1st generation of these cases is that they block, or at least make access difficult, the ports and buttons. I have learned to do as much testing with plugs and connections early after buying a case.

It is good to see generation 2 of these cases starting to come out. These upgrades are starting to do a better job of allowing access to the connections. A leader in this area is the company Speck, they have a new iPhone 4 case and a iPad case that at least allows access to the Apple connector. Have a look at the photo of their new iPhone 4 case below. I was not able to find a good picture of the functioning of the case on the Speck web site, however the web site CoolBeta does a good job of showing it off for them.

The case might work as a stand by itself as well, although no report on this function. I hope that companies like Speck continue to innovate in these areas, these accouterments could really add value to the devices. This should make me feel better about the amount of money I spend on these accessories!


Update, the Speck web site does have a picture of the operation of the CandyShell Flip, but only for their pink version. Guess my 'guy eyes' just did not jump to the pink one, rather the black on.... :-)




Here is another example of a 'added value' case for the iPhone, one that adds a hard keyboard. Again CoolBeta does a good job of showing a picture that tells the story. This add on is from ThinkGeek . Adding hardware peripherals to phones and tablets is going to be another area where cases will augment the core device.




Sunday, November 28, 2010

Samsung Galaxy Tab Android Tablet, continued Part 3

I did not use the device very much in the last day. But here are a couple points I did find memorable. You will see a number of Galaxy Tab vs. iPad comparisons below, and I will report that I give the nod on most of them to the iPad. As I indicate, I need to give the Galaxy Tab some more time, I have used the iPad for almost seven months now and it has a real experience lead. And that does not always equate to being better:

* Voice command of the Android phone is very good for web and information searching. Using the combo of the Android 'microphone' and Google cloud to both convert your speech to text and do the search is a real powerful set. To my comparison mode with Android vs. iPad/Phone in this area, the Apple voice command system seems focused on two areas; voice dialing and iPod music control. Yes you can do other commands with Apple voice command, but is seems less useful and reliable once you leave the dialing and iPod control commands. On the Android, I've yet to figure out what [if any] commands will do a voice call. I think you can do it but is not obvious. However web searching and other commands like SMS texting are as close to 'natural' as I've seen on a voice controlled device to date.

* The power button location is on the right side on the Galaxy Tab. I need to be careful of my long time iPad owner bias, but so far I do find the iPad power button location on top more fluid.

* My comparison of hard buttons of the two tablets continues to the 'Home' button. So far, I find the iPad's concaved home button easier to 'find' and also it serves a better roll in helping 'orient' the tablet when you first pick it up. I use the power button on the Galaxy Tab for this orientation task [you often do this when you pull the tablet out of a bag or from a table where you have no idea how it was put down]. I realize that both tablets do have a autorotation function to make 'any side' up. But on both, I find this slows me down.

* More on buttons. On my first Android phone, the T-Mobile G1, the four standard 'hard' buttons had physical feel and feedback. On the Droid and Galaxy Tab, these are capacitive buttons with no feel. See the pictures below. I'm sure as I use the Galaxy Tab more, I will remember my finger placement, but having the feedback here is very nice in a mobile device. There is a usability factor that I am starting to get a stronger understanding of when you use a mobile device. When you first start a set of steps on a mobile device you often start using the device in an unstable or awkward position, having buttons and other physical feedback items gets your brain through these insecure first few moments of interaction and lets  you get to the 'value' steps faster.


Motorola Droid









android-galaxytab.jpgSamsung Galaxy Tab


android-g1.jpgT-Mobile G1



* On a side note of the four physical buttons that are installed on almost all Android phones, different hardware manufactures seem to have the license to place the buttons in whatever order they want. Granted, not many folks are going to be regularly using two different Android devices, but I am. And as you can see between the Droid and Galaxy Tab pictures above, Motorola and Samsung have put three of the four buttons in different locations. G1 is different as well. Very difficult on my memory!

* On the auto-rotation function on the Galaxy Tab, I find it a bit more 'squirrely' then on the iPad. Both can be pretty annoying and I often find I've locked the orientation on both devices and then just 'deal' with turning the tablet. To this 'solution', that is why right now I find the iPad a bit quicker from 'on to usefulness' with its physical home button.

* Belkin Grip Vue silicon [or something like silicon] case. $29.95 at Best Buy. I like the product for two reasons; first the fit, finish and functionality of this cover is outstanding. This is not a full case for the Galaxy Tab, it only covers the back and edges of the unit. Nothing over the glass front. But it significantly enhances the 'grip-ablity' of the device. Second, kudos to Belkin for selling something that I doubt costs them more than dimes to make for THIRTY DOLLARS! Far too much markup, but what can you do.

I first purchased one of these for an iPad, I do want to report that the fit and usefulness of the Grip Vue is better on the iPad. On the Galaxy Tab, it does fit snugly but warps out along one edge and the fit around the power and volume buttons are not as useful as on the iPad. Also, because the iPad has more mass, the security you get after you start holding the iPad in the Grip Vue is greater. Still on the Galaxy Tab I feel better about 'one handing' it with it in the Grip Vue, but I really felt that way on the heavier iPad.

* Keyboard feedback. I am not sure as yet how to control this feature, but as you press 'keys' on the on screen keyboard on the Galaxy Tab, you get a 'vibrate' feedback. This is much better than the 'click' audio feedback on the iPad or iPhone. It does not tell you you're hitting the right key, but for some reason the vibrating feedback makes me more confident while typing.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Samsung Galaxy Tab Android Tablet, continued Part 2

Here are my notes after two more days of exploring the Samsung Galaxy Tab Android Tablet. I've still not gotten to creating a UI's that take advantage of the larger screen space, hopefully over the weekend.

Plenty of rumors on the Android forums of other Android tablets coming soon and about the next two versions of the OS; 2.3 and 3.0. The tease from the Notion Ink people about the Adam tablet is pretty impressive. If it lives up the pretty pictures and price rumors then that might be a really exciting unit.


* Video players for Android, there is a real lack of players that support the various media formats that are out there. The hardware in the Galaxy Tab does not support many format, or so I am told by a number of the free players I've tried. There are couple of players that do software decoding of formats. The one I am using the most now is something called RockPlayer. It plays two formats that the build in player 'Video' version 0.16.04P1 did not identify as playable. The OGG video seems to play okay, but the .MOV format video that I recorded with the iPhone does not play very well.

* Google's App Innovator Android app development environment. I installed this under Ubuntu 10.04 and Chrome. It took a little work to get it install, most of the roadblocks I encountered I had already figured out as part of installing the standard Eclipse based Android development environment under Linux. App Innovator is similar to the old Apple HyperCard. It is a nice start as a tool for educating student on software development ideas using the Android platform. I've been following the discussions for it since it first went into public beta, about 4 months ago I think. It is a solid first step, the biggest problem I see with it so far is what I see a fairly slow roll out of updates. I realize that it is only 1 year old or less, but in this fast paced world it really need to move to stay on the radar.

* Battery life has been good, not as strong as the iPad but a solid 6 hours before you start to worry about running low or get any messages.

* Only one total lockup that required a hard reboot [Done by holding the power button down for 10 seconds or more]. I was trying out 3 or 4 of the twitter apps that are available, I think I did not successfully kill one before launching another. While I have had two of them running in the past, I think the background downloading tasks go in a fight.

* I do find myself actively killing tasks that are in the background on a regular basis. The build in task manager feature that is in this copy of Android 2.2 does that very nicely. Frustratingly, the build in task manger of the 2.2 version on my Droid phone does NOT have this feature. I picked up the habit of using the 3rd party task killers on Android a long time ago on my T-Mobile G1 and Android 1.6, perhaps I do not need to do this as much anymore, but the behavior is ingrained in my. Interestingly, I do the same on the iPhone, though not as regular. Even there, I do find apps that suck battery life in the background at times. Apple advantage is that they allow less types of processing in the background so apps have fewer opportunities to screw up.

* I upgraded the Barnes and Noble Nook e-book reader when it was offered by the Android Market, as a result the Nook app can no longer open its books. The original version that came installed seemed to work fine. I emailed the Nook support and got a reply asking me how I could have possibly have either gotten the Nook reader on an Android Tablet or how I got the Android Market running on a Android Tablet.... I gave them the details and have not heard anything back.... Frustrating that their tech support was both poorly informed and so sure that what I was experiencing could not possibly be occurring.

* I've downloaded and done some basic exploration with about 50 apps so far. The built in apps from Google [and their add on ones, like Google Sky, Googles] are solid and very comfortable to use on the Galaxy Tab. The Twitter apps are all good solid performers, on par with the iPhone/iPad apps. The only area they are a little behind on are web page link previews. A couple have this but not as evolved as the same on iOS. All the remained apps [and a couple games] work fine. No screen issue with any apps so far. And only a couple don't 'scale up' on the Galaxy Tab. I still have a more iPhone apps that do not scale to the iPad on iOS! I find programs like Epocrates, a medical app that does medical news, drug interaction and pill identification as well as several other useful function the type app that I think is going be really effective on the 7 inch form tablet.



Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Samsung Galaxy Tab Android Tablet First Impressions

I picked up a Samsung Galaxy Tab Android tablet at the Santa Barbara AT&T store today. These are my first impressions of the device.

I've been using the Apple iPad since it first came out in April of this year and I still think it is a fantastic device and the leader of this new mobile wireless form factor that is taking off. It was clear to me when Steve Jobs announced the iPad in January of this year that the tablet device was going to be an amazing next step in the evolution of computing. I felt at that time that there would be a big rollout of these tablet devices and today I am trying my first Android tablet, the Samsung Galaxy Tab:



I picked up one of two units that were delivered to the AT&T store in Santa Barbara. I had dropped by yesterday and they had not yet received any units. Cost out the door was USD 706.86.

They do not have any accessories in stock. I found this the case on release day for the AT&T iPhone 4 at their stores as well, I think they are really missing the boat on profits in these accessories on launch day. Best Buy really understands this.

I played around with the Verizon and Sprint version of the tablet yesterday at Best Buy before dropping by the AT&T store to see if they had any. Best Buy was well stocked with both the Verizon and Sprint units and accessories.

I reviewed the costs of the unit via the various wireless providers and decided to go with the AT&T version for two reasons:

1) Even though it was the most expensive to purchase, the fact that the service plan is completely without strings, like the Apple iPad's service, is a big plus. On a 2 year plan, it appeared to me that the subsidy only comes out to about USD 10 to 15 dollars per month and the lowest cost plans seemed to be in the USD 30 up amounts [plus the taxes]. So even purchasing a subsidized  unit would still cost ten or more dollars per month from the other carriers.

2) I figured that a unit on the GSM network such as AT&T would be more flexible, for international travel and possible resale than the USA centric CDMA units.

I walked out of the AT&T store with the device in hand and went over to a nearby Starbucks to give it a first spin. This is where I ran into my first problem, after getting a cup of coffee. I open the box to find the unit powered on and on a screen that said 'Downloading.... do not turn off Target!!!' The salesman at the AT&T store did not power the unit on and the SIM card was already installed. In hindsight, I should have had the guy at least turn it on. The box was sealed when he bought it out to the counter, so I'm not sure where or when this update started. I waited for 15 minutes to see if the screen changed, there was no progress indicator. After that period, I crossed my fingers and powered the unit off. When I powered it back up, it came up to a normal initial setup screen with no problems.  But not a good first impression, hopefully others are not seeing similar.

So I got it up and running to the initial Android desktop and played around with it a bit. As I had found the day before at Best Buy, the unit is very spry and responsive.

My next step was to purchase a 1 month of wireless service on the unit. This I found a bit difficult to get done on the device, partly due to my lack of experience with 'typing and swiping' on it and part due to the fact the registration was done in the web browser window, not in a dedicated and formatted web window as I remember the iPad AT&T service registration being done. After three tries reentering my info, I finally was successful.

I found the unit to be at 50% charge level after I rebooted it from the 'downloading' screen, so I plugged it in to a wall socket at the Starbucks and did all of my initial 2 hours of testing while the unit was powered on A/C. I find the supplied cable to be a bit short, the one with the iPad seems to be longer. The A/C adapter is a nice small size with an exchangeable wall plug for international use, however like the Apple unit, it is a unique format that will require buying adapters from Samsung. However, it is 100 to 240 volt universal. The prongs on the A/C adapter do not fold down like some of the Apple units do, I realize this easier for the USA plug format, but is a nice feature to see on A/C adapters.

The unit got to a full charge in less than the two hours I spent at the Starbucks. It connected to the free AT&T Wifi service at Starbucks fine, although the first time it did require me to acknowledge the service agreement in the browser, I did not think the iPhone and iPad require this at Starbucks. I will see if it continues to require this in the future.

I downloaded several apps and synced my two Google accounts while at Starbucks. One of the apps I tried was Skype, which made a phone call just fine over the wifi. The USA versions of the Galaxy Tab do not include any voice calling via mobile, so it was nice to see that VOIP service seem to work fine. I tested to see if Skype would make a call over the AT&T wireless network and NOPE, Skype says that 'In the USA, voice calls are only available via Wifi'.

The Android market worked fine, both on the Wifi and AT&T network, I was able to purchase 'Doodle Jump' via my Google account.

After getting used to the size and operation; web browsing, email and apps are working well. To Steve Jobs point, that this size screen will not be as effective for the basic productivity functions I will agree. However, there are other aspects of this size device that I do think beat out the iPad. The smaller size is easier to carry and for some operations including video, audio and dedicated apps I have the feeling and so far my experience support that this size device will find a useful niche. The iPad can get a bit awkward at times and tiring to use for extended periods. I think the Amazon folks research that ended the up at this size for the first Kindle book reader is correct, so that Steve is not 100% accurate in his statement that this size device is not useful.

My second negative experience came when I tried to register the device at the Samsung web site, when I went to enter the serial number of the unit in the registration form, the web site came back and said that it was not a valid serial number. I used the online chat service at the Samsung web site and with the help of the 2nd level tech on chat I was able to register the unit using the IMEI number rather than the serial number as was requested.

So my only two real knocks on the overall experience so far are not related to the operation of the Galaxy Tab  or Android, but rather due to the overall initial fit and finish of the service aspects of the experience. But, these are important, as many returned and unused technologies are due to these side problems. Apple continues to do a fantastic job of making sure the complete experience is good, they really understand this.

I am now into the 5th hour of operation of the device, figuring two hours of that were on charger, I have been on battery for 3 hours and the battery level indicator says that 31% of the battery remains. I have been using the GPS, navigation, wifi and music player functions for a considerable part of this time on battery.  So my initial impression is that I will see about 5 to 6 hours of continuous use under medium to high power use functions. Not as good as the iPad.

I have not found any screen size issues with apps running on the Galaxy Tab, a number of reports knocked the unit and apps for not being formatted for the larger screen. The apps I've tried, from games like Angry Bird to productivity apps like Facebook and Twitter are very useable. As a matter of fact, having the fonts size up is a good thing for folks like myself with diminishing near vision. I have not seen any pixelated fonts or images so far. Some of the startup splash screens do show the 'blown up' effect, but once the apps are running Android 2.2 is doing a good job of scaling fonts, text and menus. Overall, the Android 2.2 experience on the tablet format is good. I do think it is missing some usability functions that Apple refined for the iPad in iOS, but these lacks have not been as big as I had heard they were.

I am going to use the Galaxy Tab more over the next days and refine my impressions and then I will move to the really interesting aspect for me, developing apps for this device. The combination of the size and the far more openness to connectivity of the Android platform are the parts that make me think that some very powerful uses of this platform can be done. This is where I think the Android tablets have an advantage over the closed Apple iPad. While for general use, the walled garden of the iPad is a good thing. For specific vertical uses of the tablet format, being able to control and mod the Android devices will be extremely powerful. That combined with the refining of the Android software that is occurring will give Apple a real run for leadership. Fundamentally the hardware is going to be very similar from all vendors, the advantage that Apple has had in the area of unique and leading edge hardware is reducing. They may well still lead out the gate, but the window of this lead is narrowing with each new hardware release.

I will close out this initial post on the Samsung Android Galaxy Tab by giving it a 4 and 3/4 star out of five rating. I will use the iPad as my 5 star perfect score for comparison. Not because I think the iPad was perfect the day it came out seven months ago, or even today, but it is fair to say that it is the standard that other tablets will be measured against for the next year or so. That is fair, as it was first out the gate.

I think that Android tablets in the 7 inch form factor is going to be very popular and my initial impressions are very positive. Congratulations to Samsung and Google!



Sunday, May 9, 2010

Craig Hockenberry benchmarks original iPhone vs. the iPad

I realize that the form factor is considerable different between the iPhone and the iPad. However guessing that a not too power reduced A4 chip will most likely be in the next iPhone this year the performance increase in two and a half years is as Hockenberry says 'Holy crap!'. I would like to see how this compares with the Moore's law performance increase in desktop computing over a similar period.

More here:

Benchmarking in your lap by Craig Hockenberry

Native performance: Original iPhone vs. iPad

TestiPad/3.2iPhone/2.0Faster by
100,000 iterations0.000035 secs.0.015 secs.428x
10,000 divisions0.0000100.004400x
10,000 sin(x) calls0.0000120.1058,750x
10,000 string allocations0.0043210.08520x
10,000 function calls0.0003380.00412x

The most remarkable change is when you compare the original iPhone to the iPad. Using the numbers from my original tests and the results above reveals an improvement of several orders of magnitude in just over 2½ years. I believe the technical term for this is “Holy crap!”

Note: I don’t remember if the original tests were optimized builds, or if it was even possible to get gcc to do them with a jailbreak toolchain. Even if they weren’t optimized like the current tests, the performance increases are still stunning.

All-in-all, a remarkable achievement by Apple’s engineers, especially when you consider that the battery life of these devices has gone up, rather than down.




Checking out two new apps, MarsEdit 3.0 on OSX and Note Taker HD on iPad

I've been experimenting with two new applications, MarsEdit 3.0 on OSX and Note Taker HD on the iPad.

I've used Dan Bricklin's software since VisiCalc on the Apple. It is great to see him writing apps for the iPhone and iPad. Note Taker is an app that lets you write notes just like you were writing with a pen on paper. No attempts to OCR but many interesting technologies to make writing in a 'e'-format the same [or better] than on paper. I have tried various technologies in this area for years, but until Note Taker HD and the iPad I've found all far from the mark of replacing my trusty Mead Composition books. The first one I tried was a predecessor to the Adesso CyberPad, CrossPad by A. T. Cross Pens and IBM. I do not think much has improved since  device until the iPad and Note Taker HD.

Mead Composition Book



There is still much to be tuned in working with the user interface on the iPad, and Note Taker HD is in the middle of these as many apps are on the iPad. But over all this is a fantastic application. I am still up in the air as to whether typing notes on the iPad or writing them is the right future. Or perhaps a combo of the two is the way to go. Note Taker HD does not attempt to handle typed text currently and I do not know if this is on Bricklin's radar. All of the combo apps I have tried so far are far from a good solution. A third aspect is recording audio as well as writing or typing notes. Note Taker HD, again, does not attempt this and I do not know if it will, some or the note pad type apps do include this feature. I have used a simple hardware voice recorder for many years, but to be able to keep audio and your written notes in sync right from the recorded point is a very useful future.

I have done some test writing with Note Taker HD to get familiar with its operation. There are two edit modes, called Edit 1 and Edit 2. Edit 2 seems to be the way to go for note taking, picture a little 'zoomed' in window that moves along as you write. This is one area were some work is needed, the operation and smoothness of using Edit 2 can be improved, it still gets in the way of pure writing like you do on paper. It needs to be invisible as you write.

I am looking forward to taking Note Taker HD on a real world






drive and sharing my experiences.




























I am writing this post with the new 3.0 version of MarsEdit for OS X, Daniel Jalkut at Red Sweater Software had a great application for writing blog entries and this new version is an outstanding upgrade. I will write about it more as I learn its new features.



Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Internet of Things and Games talk by Jesse Schell at DICE conference February 2010

This is a funny and though provoking talk by a smart game designer Jesse Schell about using games and point chasing with the ubiquitous sensor future of the 'Internet of Things'. Two key points he makes. First, humans love to compete in games. And second, the connected world of much of what we touch and do during the day is going to have sensors attached that will report our actions to someone. It is coming, as he says there is no doubt about that.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Sony PS3 hacked: ""I rigged an FPGA button to send the pulse. Sometimes it kernel panics, "

The Register is reporting that a very smart hacker has been able to open up the Sony PS3. What is interesting here is what appears to be his combination of a hardware, software, old school 'keep pounding on the door till you get in' solution.

"I rigged an FPGA button to send the pulse. Sometimes it kernel panics, sometimes it lv1 panics, but sometimes you get the exploit!! If the module exits, you are now exploited."

With the increase of open source hardware debuggers coming available, the 'old' clip of the young John Conner in the movie Terminator 2 sticking his 'hacked' ATM card into the ATM machine and getting money is here.

RFID passport privacy issues uncovered: A Traceability Attack Against e-Passports

This paper by Tom Chothia and Vitaliy Smirnov at the University of Birmingham shows another example of why open source vetting and more transparency are necessary before massive Internet of Things systems are rolled out.

Their conclusion:
'Our work shows the inherent dangers of using RFID tags in personal items.'

Berg Insights research: 1.4% of world wide wireless connection are machine to machine (M2M)

The research firm, Berg Insights, did a study at the end of last year  that finds that 1.4 percent of wireless communications is from one machine to another. And this is predicted grow by 26% per year. In the USA, Berg says the current percentage of wireless M2M connections is 4.3%.

This is the 'Internet of Things' growing at a very fast pace. This research only focuses on the mobile/cellular market, so the machine to machine communications in other frequencies [WiFi, Zigbee, Dash7] are even larger.

From Berg's research paper:

New M2M initiatives launched by major mobile operator groups are expected to have a positive influence on demand, stimulating new large-scale projects. Regulatory developments are predicted to have a major impact on the telematics industry. The EU is expected to propose formal legislation for the introduction of eCall by 2014 but in Brazil the fate of Resolution 245 is more uncertain. Another significant development to watch will be the progress of the Dutch government’s plans to introduce a nationwide electronic road charging system for all motor vehicles.

Monday, January 25, 2010

More on bad embedded software coding and coding practices

Good article here in Electronic Design about litigation that is starting to occur around embedded systems code. Just have a look at this line of code the author of that article found:

y = (x + 305) / 146097 * 400 + (x + 305) % 146097 / 36524 * 100 + (x + 305) % 146097 % 36524 / 1461 * 4 + (x + 305) % 146097 % 36524 % 1461 / 365;

In the original listing, there were no comments on this line to help. I eventually learned that this code computes the year, accounting for extra days in leap years, when given the number of days since a known reference date. But we still don’t know if it works in all cases, despite its presence in an FDA-regulated medical device. The Microsoft Zune Bug was buried in a much better formatted snippet of code that performed a very similar calculation.

This is a follow up to my post about the poor code that TI shipped out with their Zigbee products. I saw posts today that they are shipping updated code, but how long will it take to get it rolled out.

This article really highlights how important good training, good review processes and I think much more open source review is needed as we move forward to the Internet of Things.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

TI eZ-430 Chronos watch based wireless door lock

Ziyan Zhou and Zachery Shivers are two smart young guys studying at Rochester Institute of Technology. They have created a very nice project based on the low power TI 430 microcontroller and 9xx mHz wireless chips from Texas Instruments. I beat up on TI in a previous blog entry for their shoddy code review that allowed a big security bug to slip through in their Zigbee chips. Despite that fail, TI creates some very nice hardware that is enabling the Internet of Things. This project by Zhou and Shivers is a great example of what is going to explode in the coming months and years. They do a very nice job of reviewing security issues in their design. Give their project and the others at the TI430 low power design contest web site a look, good stuff! Vote for the one you think is tops, my vote was to Ziyan [Joe] and Zach.

Monday, January 18, 2010

TI Zigbee chips in SmartMeters easily hacked

It was very sad to see this article about the shoddy job that was done in creating a solid PRNG for the Zigbee smart meters that the TI chips are installed in. Apparently a large number of the current meters have the TI Zigbee hardware:
Texas Instruments to patch smart meter crypto blunder

You have to wonder about the quality of any other software coming out of that group. Were is the QA, code review? This reenforces my opinion that open source is the best path for much of the systems development going on now. Unless you can afford a Space Shuttle software development effort, I do not see other good routes to good software. This was such a basic blunder, with so much very recent history of similar shorts cuts causing WiFi systems to be vulnerable how could this happen?

This guy, Travis Goodspeed, and a couple of others are doing a real service getting these issue out in the light. And I am guessing with no help from the likes of TI, Zigbee or others.

While it not clear if this mistake will make it any more possible for hackers to 'bring the grid down'. It sure looks like it will slow the deployment of energy saving and GHG reducing solutions for residential and commercial buildings and that is bad enough.

Come on, you can do better!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Eco-Home sustainable urban living demonstrated since the 1988

I had the wonderful experience of touring Julia Russell's Eco-Home in Los Angeles before Christmas. Julia's 1911 Craftsman home has been a demonstration project showing that it is possible to retrofit existing homes in an urban location and have a very low environmentally impact. I know this is old news to pretty much anyone living outside the United States. But for folks in Los Angeles, this is a must visit project.

Julia and one of her docents, Judy, gave a fantastic tour and lecture of the property, xeriscaping, garden, its history and the products and technologies used.

I've posted a few photos from the tour here on Flickr.

I encourage you to contact Eco-Home to set up a tour, here is the link for 2010 tour info.

Julia has indicate that she may retire from the Eco-Home project in 2010, so get a tour date as soon as you can. It is a wonderful education.

Zwave Home Automation, Leviton RS232 Serial Interface RZC0P basic wiring for USB Serial Adapter

I've started to work with a ZWave home automation control product from Leviton, the RZC0P-1LW. This device allows the control of Zwave based wireless home automation devices via a RS-232 interface.

The Zwave system is a proprietary system requiring a licensing agreement with Zwave Alliance group. Joining this group and paying some level of fees gives a developer access to programming and related information. The lowest level of membership in 2009 appears to be the Affiliate Member with an annual fee of USD300 and perhaps the requirement to purchase a USD500 hardware development kit.

There are a couple of other ways to programmatically work with Zwave devices, there are several home automation software and hardware systems that put one or more layers on top of the Zwave proprietary protocol. Doing a Google search of home automation and zwave will give you a list of these product. There are even a couple of open source projects that have reverse engineered parts of the Zwave control protocols and devices.

And a third way, in a sense a mini home automation layer, is to use one of these RZC0P devices in an existing Zwave network. As far as I can tell so far, the RZC0P cannot be the primary controller of a Zwave network. And every Zwave network requires one of these primary controllers to add, delete and manage the devices in a Zwave network. However, the RZC0P can be included as what is called a secondary controller. And a small amount of documentation has been created by Leviton to show you how to do basic functions to Zwave devices via ASCII commands to the RZC0P.

I've studied the Zwave products, vendors and public information for a couple of years. More on what I have found about it and my opinions later.

But for now, I wanted to share some tech work I did to get the RZC0P running on a small Zwave network I have set up to explores of of the uses of these devices for both Aging In Place and Energy Management.

I am not a RS-232 expert nor an electrical engineering guru. But I have spend enough time in both of these areas that I knew that I had a problem talking to the RZC0P pretty quickly. I had the documentation on the ASCII commands and the RS-232 configuration requirements. Using these, I hooked the RZC0P up to a IBM Thinkpad with a build in RS-232 port and was able to start communicating with the device right a way. The problems came with I tried to move my testing to a Apple OS X computer with a KeySpan USA-19HS USB serial adapter. I wanted do my testing using the Python language and tools and was more comfortable with using these tools on Linux and OS X.

The problem I encountered was that I could not get the RZC0P to respond to commands when attached via the KeySpan USB serial port. I did not try the KeySpan USB adapter on the Windows machine, but I suspect from reading some posts on the web that I would have found a similar problem. I found several other people that indicated they were only successful in communicating with the RZC0P using a serial port directly attached to the Windows machine.

At first I suspected that I was not correctly toggling some of the RS-232 control signals, however the devices cable and documentation point to, but do not directly spell out, that only TX, RX and Signal Ground pins are required on the cable and no software or hardware handshaking is done.

A further interesting fact appear as I played around with various terminal emulators on OS X and cable combinations. At various points of these changes, the RZC0P would start communicating. I struggled to find the pattern that made it work.

Well bottom, apologizes for my long route to my conclusion here.. I suspect that the RZC0P has some bug or non-standard implementation of RS-232 electrical interface. I found that if I used a RS-232 break out box between the Keyspan USB serial adapter and the RZC0P, with just the three pins, TX, RX and Signal Ground connected, the unit would work consistently. I could plug and unplug it, power it off and it would always come right up and communicate with the Mac software. So what was special about this RS-232 break out box?

The breakout box connects a set of LED from the TX and RX lines to signal ground via pull up resistors. This allows you to visually see the signal states change on these and other lines on the RS-232 specification. The breakout box I was using is a totally passive unit that adds no power or logic to the RS-232 signals it monitors.

So my conclusion is that the signal ground and RX/TX lines on the RZC0P are wired internally in some way that caused the logic circuit to not correctly start RS-232 communications without some electrical connection/kick between the RX/TX lines ad signal ground line.

My solution to the problem was to build a mini 9 pin DB-9 Male to Female adapter that recreated the passive monitoring circuit I found in the RS-232 breakout box.

I am guessing there is a better and simpler solution to this problem, but this seems to be working, and you get some visual feed back of the communications occurring via the two LEDs. Below is a picture of the finished adapter.


Here are the parts and steps:

Male 9 pin DB-9
Female 9 pin DB-9
2 - 560 ohm 1/4 watt resistors
2 - LED
wire to connect pin 2 to pin 2, male to female DB 9
wire to connect pin 3 to pin 3, male to female DB 9
wire to connect pin 5 to pin 5, male to female DB 9

Connect pin 2 to pin 2, male to female DB 9
Connect pin 3 to pin 3, male to female DB 9
Connect pin 5 to pin 5, male to female DB 9

Connect pin 2 on the male DB-9 connector to one lead of a 560 ohm 1/4 watt resistor
Connect the second lead of the 1st 560 ohm resistor to the anode lead of the 1st LED
Connect the cathode lead of the 1st LED to pin 5 on the male DB-9 connector

Connect pin 3 on the female DB-9 connector to one lead of the 2nd 560 ohm 1/4 watt resistor
Connect the second lead of the 2nd 560 ohm resistor to the anode lead of the 2nd LED
Connect the cathode lead of the 2nd LED to pin 5 on the female DB-9 connector