Tech companies race for advantage in ‘smart’ home market

This article first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

Samsung, according to TechCrunch, is in talks to buy home automation company SmartThings for $200 million. As of my deadline, the deal hadn’t been confirmed, but if it goes through, it would put the giant Korean electronics company in direct competition with Apple and Google.

But even if this deal doesn’t pan out, you can be sure that Samsung — along with just about every other consumer electronics company — will be entering this market.

Although technically the term “home automation” could apply to any labor-saving device, including dishwashers and washing machines, in today’s world it means remote control and monitoring of home appliances, lights, doors, security and entertainment systems.

For example, SmartThings sells a $99 hub that connects devices to the Internet so that they can be controlled from your smartphone via a cloud-based service. They also sell a $49 Multi Sensor that can detect the temperature and when “things” (such as doors, drawers or even objects) are opened, closed, moved or change angles. You could place the sensor near your front door to know if it’s been opened, which not only helps detect an intruder, but also can let a working parent know that their kid is home from school. The software can even be used to send you an alert if the child hasn’t come home by a certain time. You could also use it to monitor if windows have been opened or if someone left the garage door open.

Because these devices are wireless, they’re relatively easy to install and, unlike home monitoring services, there are no monthly fees to pay.

The company’s website has an amusing video showing how a customer uses his voice to turn on the coffee pot. You can also program the doors to lock as soon as you leave the house or turn on the air conditioner from work so the house is cool when you get home.

There is almost no end to what you can automate using technologies not just from SmartThings, but also from Belkin, Wink (sold at Home Depot) and other companies. Nest, which was purchased by Google this year for $3.2 billion, currently, makes a “smart” thermostat and smoke and carbon dioxide detector that you can control with your voice or your smartphone. The company hasn’t announced other products but, based on Nest CEO Tony Fadell’s presentation at the Re/code conference last month, it’s pretty clear that they have ambitious plans.

Privacy advocates have expressed concern about Google having access to information collected by Nest devices in people’s homes. But in a blog posted at the time of the acquisition, Nest implied that it would never share data with the rest of Google. “Our privacy policy clearly limits the use of customer information to providing and improving Nest’s products and services,” the blog said. “We’ve always taken privacy seriously and this will not change.”

Still, whether the technology is from Google or any other company, connecting our homes to the so-called “Internet of things” does raise some interesting privacy and security issues.

Apple, too, is jumping into home automation. Its iPhone, iPad and even its iPod touch media player have long been used as controllers for other companies’ home automation products. Just about every company in this space has an iOS app along with an Android app to control its products. But at its Worldwide Developers Conference conference last month, Apple announced Home Kit, which is a set of tools to help developers create home automation apps for Apple devices. The technology allows for developers to create apps that share customer data with apps from other developers, assuming it’s OK with the customer.

That means any Home Kit app can interact with any other compatible Home Kit device in your home. So your coffee pot and your dishwasher could carry on a conversation, even if they are controlled by devices from different companies. That begs the question of what they would talk about (Maybe the coffee maker would tell the dishwasher that it’s time to wash your coffee cup).

While smartphone integration is relatively new to the home automation landscape, there is nothing new about devices that can be remotely controlled from within or even from outside the house. Twenty years ago, I was using X10 devices to control lamps, fans and other devices throughout my home. It wasn’t a wireless technology exactly, but sent data through the house’s electrical wires to any plugged-in device, so there was no need to string additional wires

I am excited about the developments in home automation and look forward to installing some relatively simple but useful things, like a garage door monitor and electronic house locks that let you lock and unlock the door from a phone or program a code to let workers into the house during a specific period of time.

But there are still some tasks that will require old-fashioned manual labor for the foreseeable future. We have machines to wash and dry our dishes and clothes but, until robots get a lot better, it still takes a human to clear the table, put away the dishes and fold clean laundry.

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Apple’s iPhone 6 Already Has Tough Competition from LG’s G3

Read the full post at Forbes.com

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‘Net neutrality’ comment deadline extended till Friday June 18th

In May, the Federal Communications Commission issued a proposed new rule on network neutrality that critics say would open the door to fast and slow lanes on the Internet. The reason I’m writing about it now is because Friday is the extended deadline for posting comments on the proposal. You can comment on other people’s comments until mid-September.

Network neutrality, or what some call “an open Internet,” would guarantee that Internet service providers not discriminate between content providers based on business factors. Almost all agree it wouldn’t allow an Internet service provider like AT&T to block an Internet phone service like Vonage just because it competes with AT&T’s phone services. Nor would it allow Comcast to block a video streaming service like Netflix to protect its TV business.

But there are disagreements as to how one defines an “open” Internet. The FCC’s proposal would, for example, allow for an Internet service provider to enter into an agreement to provide faster content delivery to companies willing to pay for it. Companies like Netflix or Google could pay Internet service providers to assure a faster connection at home, which might benefit Netflix and its customers, but discriminate against competing video services that can’t afford or don’t want to enter into such an arrangement.

Just to be clear, network neutrality has nothing to do with the speed of your Internet service. Tiered pricing for different levels of service has long been the norm. For example, Comcast currently offers up to 25 megabit per second Internet access for $29.99 a month or 50 Mbps service for $44.99 a month. AT&T has a 6 Mbps plan for $14.95 a month and an 18 Mbps plan for $19.95 a month. But in a world of network neutrality, once you pay for that level of service, you are entitled to enjoy any legal content you want without the service provider lowering or boosting the speed.

The same is true at the other end. The types of servers, routers and hosting services that content companies use influences the speed of delivery. A website operator like me who pays a few dollars a month for a shared hosting service, for example, isn’t as likely to get the same speed or reliability as a company like Yahoo that spends an enormous amount of money for its hosting sites that serve millions of people a day.

But in a truly neutral world, a content provider wouldn’t be able to pay a service provider for faster or better access into the home of a mutual customer. So, Netflix might have the world’s fastest servers and you might have the fattest pipe and fastest Internet service you can buy, but your ISP couldn’t charge Netflix to deliver that content into your house any faster than it delivers content from other providers.

There are lots of arguments in favor of network neutrality, including the basic notion that ISPs make their money by selling you bandwidth and that they shouldn’t be allowed to double-dip by charging the content providers for performance that customers are already paying for. Mainly, network neutrality proponents argue that we need regulations to assure that the Internet remains a level playing field with equal access for everyone, from a one-person company to a multinational corporation.

On the other side, Adam Thierer, senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, argues that “there is a very real threat of the slippery slope of regulation, leading to greater controls on the Internet. If the FCC is able to control one part of the Internet, why not control other parts?” He also thinks there are “better alternatives, including community policing,” such as the Net Neutrality Squad that monitors accusations of discrimination on the Internet and shines light on them. And Thierer worries about the FCC “freezing networks in stone” as it did with regulated telephone companies, which he says resulted in higher costs and lower quality services.

Whatever side you’re on, this is a heated and important debate because it will affect the future of what has become the world’s most important communications and information network. Big companies and big government are already weighing in and now it’s time for the public to have its say.

If you have concerns about network neutrality, today’s the day to share your thoughts with the FCC at www.fcc.gov/comments or you can make your comment via email at openinternet@fcc.gov.

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Tips for reducing risk when using mobile devices

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Click here for A Parents Guide to Mobile Phones

This article first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

I recently helped write a free online booklet called “A Parents’ Guide to Mobile Phones,” available at connectsafely.org/mobile, but much of the advice applies to all cellphone users. Were it not for some parenting tips such as the section on buying a child’s first phone, it could just as easily have been titled “A mobile users’ guide to reducing risk.”

Notice I said “reducing risk,” not eliminating it. When it comes to safety, security and privacy, the best we can do is to take reasonable precautions to reduce the chances of something bad happening. Just as with cooking, driving or getting out of bed, there is no way to completely eliminate risk. And, when talking about risk, it’s important to distinguish between risk and harm. I know this seems obvious, but when it comes to technology dangers, some people forget that just because something can happen, doesn’t mean it likely will.

There was a time when the cellphone carriers had complete control over what people did with their phones. I’d hate to go back to that time, but along with the freedom that allows developers to create apps comes the increased risk of problems associated with those apps. Cellular carriers are still a big part of the mobile phone ecosystem, but so are handset or operating system companies like Apple, Samsung, Google and Microsoft, along with hundreds of thousands of app developers. But, as we point out in our mobile guide “There are two other very important players in this ecosystem where families are concerned: you and your children. More than ever, it’s up to the user to determine what to do with a smartphone.”

Some of the risks associated with mobile phones are similar to the Web or any other connected technology. We need to be careful about what information we share, how we treat people via text messaging, email and social networks, and to guard against allowing phone use to interfere with other activities, including school, work, sleep or in-person time with friends and family. And, as with all communication devices, try to avoid any online scams.

But mobile phones have other risks, such as location awareness and the fact that they are more easily lost, stolen or broken than devices that are tethered to a wall plug.

All mobile phones know your location, which was originally mandated for use by 911 operators to locate a caller in an emergency. But today, location services are used by all sorts of apps ranging from navigation programs like Google Maps to friend-finder services to games. Last year, the Federal Trade Commission reached a settlement with a flashlight app maker that allegedly “failed to disclose that the app transmitted users’ precise location and unique device identifier to third parties, including advertising networks.”

When downloading any app, look for the section on permissions to find out what information it has access to. Facebook Messenger, for example, “needs access” to identify contacts, calendar, location, Wi-Fi information and a lot more. These permissions actually make sense, but it’s hard to understand why a flashlight app would need to know your location. It would be unrealistic to expect people to spend a lot of time vetting every app they download, but it’s a good idea to at least read the description, the list of permissions it needs and maybe a few of the reviews in the app store before you download an app that you’re not sure about.

Be aware that apps can cost you money — sometimes for the app itself and sometimes for “in-app purchases.” Parents need to establish rules

It’s also important to lock your phone. All smartphones have some type of locking system, such as a PIN number, a password, a gesture or a fingerprint reader. Locking a phone protects your privacy and keeps others from making calls, sending texts or using apps in your name. I have heard cases of people getting in trouble or being embarrassed because of things other people did with their phone.

A good case can help prevent breakage but a phone-finder app can help you locate it if it’s lost or stolen. iPhone users should be sure to enable the Find My iPhone feature and Android users should be aware of the Android Device Manager. Both of these built-in apps allow you to locate the phone, cause it to ring at the loudest volume even if the ringer is turned off and remotely lock or erase a phone’s content from any Web-enabled device. It’s been awhile since I’ve lost a phone, but I misplace mine frequently and often use these services to locate my phone when it’s between the couch cushions or under a stack of paper in my office. The feature only works if the phone is turned on with a working battery and in range of a signal. If the phone is off, the ringer will sound or the phone can be locked or erased as soon as it’s powered up, which won’t help if it’s missing, but will if someone else finds it and turns it on.

These features can also be used to locate a person if you know their password. The iPhone has aFind My Friends app that you can use to let someone track you and there are other available tracking apps including Glympse for iPhone and Android and Find My Friends for Android.

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LG’s new tracking watch for young children

LG+KizON+0220140709095559726There are lots of apps that can allow a parent to track their child’s phone. Assuming the phone and kid are together and the phone is turned on and in range, you can also use those apps to track your kid.

But now there’s a wearable device from LG just for that purpose. The KizON wristband, which was just released in South Korea and will be available in the U.S. and Europe later this year, comes in blue, pink and green and enables parents to track their kids from a smartphone or tablet. It’s also a phone without a dial, that the parents can use to call the kid or the kid can use to call a parent by pressing a button.

“Children as well as the elderly are ideal customers for wearable technologies,” said Dr. Jong-seok Park, president and CEO of LG Electronics Mobile Communications Company. He added that “Wearables allow us to stay connected without the worry of losing a device or the inconvenience of having to carry a large item in a pocket.”

The device’s battery is rated for 36 hours and parents will get an alert on their phone if the battery falls below 25%.

 

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Microsoft to end ‘mainstream support’ for Windows 7 in 6 months

Read the post at CNET News

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Avoid delays and possible phone loss at airport security by keeping your batteries charged

A few days ago, the US Department of Homeland Security announced “enhanced security measures at certain overseas airports with direct flights to the United States” that includes the possibility that security officers may “ask that owners’ power up some devices, including cell phones.” This can also include laptop computers, although even before this directive I have been on rare occasions asked to turn on my laptop to prove that it’s a computer and not an explosive device. 

According to Reuters, U.S. officials are concerned that terrorists from the Yemen-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have figured out ways to turn phones into explosive devices. 

I don’t have access to any military intelligence, but I do know that it is not only possible to turn a cell phone or a computer into an explosive device, but I have seen precise instructions online on how to turn a phone into a bomb detonator so that the bomb can be remotely set off from anywhere in the world. One phone detonator I saw still functioned as a real phone so I’m a bit concerned that Homeland Security’s solution could create a false sense of security by challenging terrorists to create cellphone bombs that also at least appear to work like real phones.

Portable chargers

I hope that airport security posts have chargers for popular phones handy so that if a passenger does have a phone with a dead battery, they can plug it in to check it out. That would still cause a delay (it sometimes takes a few minutes before a phone with a dead battery will turn on) but at least they will be able to verify that the phone works.

Still, before leaving for the airport — especially on a return trip from overseas — it’s a good idea to make sure that  your phone and laptop are fully charged. It’s also a good idea to bring a charger with  you along with a portable charger or external battery that can charge or power-up your phone even if there is no outlet.

Ventev 6000+ battery backup will charge cell phone

Ventev 6000+ battery backup will charge cell phone

 

 

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Google and Apple integrating smartphones into cars

Apple's CarPlay lets you control your phone by voice, touch and car controls

Apple’s CarPlay lets you control your phone by voice, touch and car controls

I’m one of many people that use my smartphone while driving. I don’t text while driving and I never pick up the phone, but I do have a Bluetooth connection between my smartphone and my car’s audio system so that I can listen to Pandora, Spotify or one of thousands of other online music and news stations through my car’s speakers. I can also use my audio system as a speaker phone if I need to make or take a call.

But now both Apple and Google want to assure even better integration between cars and phones which is my Apple has created CarPlay and Google has announced Android Auto.

Both enable you to not only connect your car to audio systems in upcoming cars, but also to control those functions with the car’s built-in steering wheel controls.

Expect to see this technology in upcoming cars from GM, Ford, Kia, Honda, Toyota and most other companies.

 

 

 

 

 

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Microsoft Encryption Protects User Data From NSA and Other Snoops

Read the full post at Forbes.com

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Google buys Songza, which could be music to your ears

songz

Songza, which was just acquired by Google, helps you pick music based on the day of the week and time of day as well as your mood, activities and preferences

Google, which prides itself on organizing the world’s information, just acquired a music service that tries to play just the right series of songs, based on your mood, your activities or even the day and time.

On its website, Songza announced ‘Today, we’re thrilled to announce that we’re becoming part of Google. We can’t think of a better company to join in our quest to provide the perfect soundtrack for everything you do.”

The statement said that “No immediate changes to Songza are planned, other than making it faster, smarter, and even more fun to use.”

The service, which runs on iOS, Android and the web, plays music based on what you say is your mood, the activity you’re engaged in, a decade you like or a music genre. There is also a “concierge” feature that helps pick a play list depending on the day of the week or time of day because people often want to listen to different music on Thursday morning than they do on Saturday night.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Songza has 5.5 million, compared to 75 million for Pandora or 40 million for Spotify and Apple.
In an interview with CNET News, Songza Chief Executive Elias Roman said “Songza Chief Executive Elias Roman said “We’re moving to a time when context is king, when people don’t have to find things.” In other words, you don’t have to select your music, your music selects you.

In this regard, Songza reminds me a bit of Cone, a new Internet-connected speaker system that connects to your home wireless network to stream music and other audio but also picks music for you based on your listening habits. Cone learns what you like to listen to based on when and where you’re listening. It may come to realize that you like rock in the morning, folk in the afternoon and classical at night, for example. Or it may learn that you like to listen to certain music in certain rooms if you move the transportable speaker to another room.

Why it makes sense for Google and why there are privacy implications
The acquisition makes a lot of sense for Google. To begin with, it give Google a competitor not just to Pandora and Spotify but also Beats music service that was recently acquired by Apple. But it also fits into Google’s business model of not only organizing information but obtaining information about its users. With Songza, Google not will not only know what music you’re listening to, but what mood you’re in and what activities you’re engaged in. I’m not saying that they’re use that information, but they certainly will be able to obtain it.

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