Ubiquitous Internet on planes, trains and the developing world

by Larry Magid

This post originally appeared in the San Jose Mercurty News

I took the train between New York and Washington, D.C., last week and, for the most part, it moved swiftly between the two cities. But Amtrak’s free Wi-Fi service was slower than a wood-fired steam engine chugging up a steep hill. Sometimes it worked OK, but at other times it slowed to a crawl or stopped working altogether. Amtrak uses cellular connections, which it shares with everyone onboard, and even what might be a fast “4G” connection is inadequate when shared by hundreds of passengers.

To get around the problem, I connected my AT&T phone to my laptop, either by plugging it into the laptop’s USB port and turning on the “tethering” feature or by using my phone to create my own personal Wi-Fi hotspot that I didn’t have to share.

If the signal strength is good and if 4G LTE service is available, it can as good as a home connection. With my current AT&T service, I can sometimes get as much as 20 megabits per second, which by U.S. standards is considered high-speed broadband. (People in Korea and several other countries pay less than we do for much higher speeds, but that’s a whole other column.)

Hotels and coffee shops that offer Wi-Fi don’t have to rely on cellular for their connections, but their bandwidth is shared among multiple customers. And it’s not uncommon for public Wi-Fi access to be extremely slow or to go down intermittently, so I often rely on a cellular connection instead. Most smartphones allow you to tether with a cable or to create a hotspot, and all the major carriers support that service, though it comes at a cost.

The AT&T pay-as-you-go plan I’m on gives me 2.5 gigabytes (plus unlimited voice and text) for $60 a month, but if I go over that data limit, I pay $10 for each additional gigabyte. There are plenty of other plans out there from AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile, but be sure to pay attention to how much data you get, whether you can tether and how much you’ll pay if you go over any limits. And be careful when using data-heavy applications like streaming video, which can quickly consume gigabytes of expensive data.

As my train was speeding down the track toward Washington, I happened to come across a news release from Amtrak announcing that it’s seeking bids for an upgraded Wi-Fi service for trains in the Northeast (sorry, California Amtrak riders) that would offer “a dedicated, wireless trackside network that provides a high-capacity, broadband-speed Internet connection between Washington and Boston.” Unlike the current cellular solution, this network would allow users to download large files (there is currently a 10 megabyte limit) and allow Amtrak to lift the block that currently prevents passengers from accessing streaming media from Netflix, YouTube and other services.

On my way to the East Coast, I flew Delta Air Lines and, even though I was lucky enough to get an upgrade to first class (a perk for frequent travelers like me), my Gogo Inflight Internet connection was the online equivalent to steerage class. It was slow at best and at times didn’t work at all. Don’t get me wrong, this is definitely a first world problem — it’s a miracle that we can get Internet at all at 35,000 feet, and my great-grandparents couldn’t have even imaged that it would be possible to travel coast to coast in under 6 hours. But when you’re accustomed to uninterrupted high-speed Internet at home or work, its frustrating to be throttled when accessing the cloud from above the clouds.

The good news is that Gogo customers will eventually get an upgrade. A few months ago, Gogo Inflight, the company that provides Wi-Fi service to several U.S. airlines, announced that it’s developing a higher-speed service, using a mix of satellites and ground-based towers, that will potentially offer speeds up to 60 Mpbs.

And speaking of satellites, shortly after my train pulled into Union Station, I came across a story about Google’s decision to purchase Skybox Imaging, a venture-backed Mountain View company that launches lower cost satellites into space. Google will initially use the satellites to gather images for its mapping products, but eventually use them to beam the Internet down to remote areas of Earth.

Two months ago, Google bought drone maker Titan Aerospace, which makes high-altitude drones that can also beam-down Internet signals. And in March, Facebook spent $20 million on UK-based drone maker Ascenta, also to deliver Internet signals to hard-to-reach places. Google also operates Project Loon, which aims to create a network of high-altitude balloons that float about 12 miles in the sky to “give the Internet to the entire world,” according to a Google video.

I for one can’t wait for all this technology to be deployed so that people from all nations can have high-speed Internet access, whether they are on a train, a plane, a bus, a camel or in a remote village in the developing world, ideally at a cost that all people can afford.


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Facebook adopts behavioral ads while giving users insight and control over ads they see

Read the full post at Forbes.com

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Apple’s announcements both underwhelming and impressive

by Larry Magid

This column first appeared in the San Jose Mercury News

I was both underwhelmed and impressed with the new versions of OS X for the Mac and iOS 8 for iPhone and iPad that were unveiled last week at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco.

I know that sounds like a contradiction, but I was underwhelmed in a good way.

As expected, there were no new hardware announcements — no smartwatch, no Apple TV set, no larger iPhone — not even an update to the Mac. It was all about software, as well as synergy between Apple’s computers and mobile devices. And it wasn’t all just for us tech consumers. Much of what was introduced involved tools for the benefit of the thousands of Apple developers in the audience who will hopefully use them to create new killer apps for Apple products.

Let’s face it, iPhones and iPads are basically rectangular boxes made of glass, plastic and metal that couldn’t do anything if it weren’t for the software that brings them to life. Even most Macs, which are elegantly designed, wouldn’t be all that different from some high-end Windows machines if it weren’t for OS X. Although I must admit that the new Mac Pro, which costs $9,600 fully configured, plus $999 more for Apple’s Thunderbolt monitor, stands way apart from the crowd.

This fall, Apple will probably introduce a new iPhone and the tech press will fawn over it and report details on every curve and crevice, as if the shape, texture, color or location of every port on a phone were the most important things in the world. They’re not. What’s important is how people can use the device to enhance their lives. And that’s what last week’s announcements were all about.

Apple didn’t just announce new versions of OS X and iOS 8, but also demonstrated how Macs, iPhones and iPads can work together in what the company calls “continuity.”

The continuity feature enables people to start a project on a Mac, for example, and pick up where they left off on an iPad or an iPhone. Or it could be the other way around. You could start writing an email on your iPad and finish it from your Mac. Mac users can even make or receive iPhone calls from their computer. Apple also beefed up its iCloud Drive cloud storage service so that all the photos on your Mac or iOS device are uploaded to the “cloud” and synchronized to all your other Apple devices.

AirDrop, a feature that already lets you transfer files, photos and video from Mac to Mac or iOS to iOS device, will soon work between Macs and iOS, so it will possible to wirelessly transfer a file between a Mac and an iPhone or iPad.

It seems pretty clear that Apple wants its customers to own three devices — a Mac, an iPad and an iPhone — although a few years ago, the late Steve Jobs declared we had entered a “post-PC” era in which most consumers won’t even need PCs (or Macs), but would instead use tablets. I never fully agreed with that prediction and am pleased to see that Apple is still supporting and upgrading its Macintosh PCs. Tablets have their place, but so do personal computers.

The skeptic in me thinks some of this integration between Apple devices is a bit silly considering that there are other easy ways to transfer data between devices running different operating systems.

They’re not identical to AirDrop, but Dropbox, SugarSync, Google Drive, Microsoft OneDrive and other cloud-based storage services also move files between Macs and Windows, with support for different brands of tablets and smartphones. When I save a file on my Windows PC, it’s automatically uploaded to SugarSync and then automatically downloaded to my Mac. I don’t need software from Apple to keep all my machines in sync and I don’t have to stay within the Apple ecosystem to seamlessly access all my data from all my devices. Google Drive not only stores and syncs files, but offers Web-based applications that are always in sync even when shared by multiple users.

On a given day, it’s not uncommon for me to switch between my Android phone, my Apple iPad tablet, my Windows PC and my Apple MacBook Air without having to miss a beat or worry about data transfer. But I admit, I’m a bit of a techie and make my living keeping up with technology. Not everyone wants to take the time to figure out different ways of doing things and, for many folks, the Apple strategy will be appealing.

An iWorld, populated by Apple devices, is an easier place to live than the hodgepodge world of equipment from various manufacturers across various platforms. It may not be the least-expensive world or most innovative world to live in, but it’s a relatively pleasant place, run by a company that’s something of a benevolent dictator. The citizens of iWorld don’t get a lot of choices when it comes to what services they get from those in charge, but they willingly pay their taxes in the form of higher-priced devices as they wait patiently for new and better gadgets.

With last week’s announcements, Apple is making iWorld an even better place for those who live there, with the hope that more people will immigrate and few will emigrate. It’s a happy world, but it’s not for everyone.


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Belkin hopes to be a big part of home automation market

Read the full post at CNET News

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Intel wants to eliminate all wires from PCs, even the power cord

Read the full post at CNET News

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Sears enters 21st century with ‘Connected Solutions’

Sears is launching Connected Solutions stores

Sears is launching Connected Solutions stores

Sears, the 121 year-old retailer, is making a decidedly modern move by introducing “Connected Solutions” shops within some of its stores to “bring together one of the most authoritative assortments of smart, connected home and personal automation products in the industry,” according to a statement.

Products available from the Connect Solutions stores will include home automation solutions such as thermostats, smart locks, lighting, switches and sensors along with mobile phones, tablets, smart watches, home monitoring cameras, connected baby monitors and fitness products like treadmills, heart rate monitors and connected treadmills.

Claiming to have “knowledgeable associates,”  Sears, according to Jim Pearse, vice president of consumer electronics for Sears Holdings, “is uniquely positioned to lead this category.”

Sears garage door opener texts parents when kids get home

Sears garage door opener texts parents when kids get home

One of the products Sears is touting is its Craftsman Assurelink garage door opener which can notify parents by text when the door is open and closed, “providing peace of mind when children come home from school,” according to the company.

In a press release, Sears  VP in-store experience and design Craig LaRosa said the new shops will offer “an entertaining and interactive environment to learn about the products and our dedicated sales team is ready to help customers develop solutions that are relevant to them.”

In addition to its retail outlets, Sears also has an online version of its Connected Solutions store.

Too little too late?

In his Forbes post, Why Sears Is The Dying Dinosaur Of Retailing, Walter Loeb commented that “Sears has ignored new trends, has reduced their staples and basics, and has relied on a flawed loyalty program in a flawed attempt to bring customers to the stores.”

But with this move, the sleepy retailer appears to be waking up and taking a bit of a risk by showcasing emerging technologies such as fitness watches and wearable computing devices. It’s a smart move but it may be too little too late. Sears has lost an enormous amount of momentum not only to online giant Amazon.com but even to its brick and mortar competitors like Wal-Mart and Target and of course Apple, which is also a major retailer as well as a consumer electronics store.

It’s perhaps coincidental that Sears’ announcement came out the same day that Apple announced the home automation tools that will be available for its OS 8 developers. Is Sears forward thinking or are both Sears and Apple just catching up with the world many of us already live in?

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Apple adds new features to Mac and iPhone/iPad operating systems

At its World Wide Developers Conference on Monday, Apple unveiled the latest versions of its operating systems for its Macintosh computers and its iPhone and iPad mobile devices.

Like polishing the silver or painting the house, these upgrades are necessary but — for the most part — not all that exciting.

The new Mac operating system, called Yosemite will feature a new look and new features including an iCloud drive for storing files online as well as the ability for iPhone users to answer and make calls from their Mac. Apple is also updating its Spotlight search bar with the ability to show results from search engines and Wikipedia along with what’s in your own files.

The newest mobile operating systems 8, will include a health dashboard that consolidates data from different health and fitness apps with the ability to contact your health care provider if your numbers go out of range. Apple also improved the onscreen keyboard to better predict what you’re about to type and is giving developers tools to integrate iPhones with home appliances like garage door openers, thermostats, door locks and lighting systems.


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iOS 8 photo app (image: Apple)

Pictures taken on iPhones and iPads will automatically be uploaded to users’ iCloud account so that they can be accessed from any device (even a Windows PC).  Apple is also beefing up its editing tools including an auto-enhance feature that adjusts lighting and color.

Family Sharing


Family Sharing in OS 8 (image Apple)

Another new iOS feature is Family Sharing, which enables up to six people in your family to share apps, iBooks and music purchased on iTunes.  You can pay for all family purchases on the same credit card and parents and approve (or not) kids’ spending from their device. The Fmily Sharing feature is requires family members use the same credit card so it’s pretty much limited to real family members, not friends. 

For more, see this summary from the LA Times as well as CNET’s take and the New York Times’ summary.


Coming in the fall

Both IOS 8 and OS X Yosemite will be available in the fall. Developers got their copies today. Apple is taking the unusual step of creating a beta test program for its Yosemite OS X version over the summer to the first million people who sign-up here.

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Cone — a smart speaker that knows what you want to hear

Aether co-founder Jason Lamb and the Cone speaker

Aether co-founder Jason Lamb and the Cone speaker (photo: Larry Magid)

At the Code conference in Rancho Palos Verdes last week, Aether co-founder Duncan Lamb showed off a new speaker called Cone that connects to your home wireless network to stream music and other audio.  So far, nothing unique about that. But unlike other wireless speakers, you control the music directly from the speaker itself rather than from a phone, tablet or computer.

Thanks to cloud-based voice recognition, you can tell it what you want to hear or  you can select a song by turning a dial. If  you don’t like the song, you turn the dial again and it picks another one. Eventually, according to Lamb, 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.

A single (monaural) Cone speaker costs $399 and will be available early summer.

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Google complies with “right to be forgotten” but its not the “right” ruling

The European Union Court of Justice ruling about the “right to be forgotten” is more wrong than right. Of course I sympathize  with the individual who pressed the claim — a Spanish citizen who was upset that Google was linking to a notice  in a newspaper about his repossessed home from 1998. But even though the newspaper article may have been old and by now irrelevant, it was still factual and Google’s only crime was pointing to a web page without making any value judgement — something it’s proudly done since the day it was founded.

I have several problems with the court’s order. For one thing, it puts Google into the position of having to make editorial decisions about the content it points to, which kind of defeats the purpose of a search engine. I’m all for curated content, but that’s not what Google does. It simply scours the web to unearth content and makes that content available via search. If Google has to start making decisions about whether to include content that someone might want forgotten, what other editorial decisions might it make about content? Do we really want Google effectively censoring the web by failing to surface legal content?

Another problem I have with the right to be forgotten is that history is history, regardless of how unhappy someone might be to have it revealed. If something happened — even if it is outdated or irrelevant — it still happened and stories about it are part of the historical record. It’s the electronic equivalent of shredding old newspapers because you don’t like what’s printed in them.

It also creates a false sense of security because the court ruling doesn’t require that the information be taken down — just removed from saerch results. In other words, it’s still there and there may be other ways for people to find it.

Google’s Search removal request form

Google has created a web page where you can request that they “remove results for queries that include their name where those results are ‘inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant, or excessive in relation to the purposes for which they were processed.’”

On that page, the company said that it “will assess each individual request and attempt to balance the privacy rights of the individual with the public’s right to know and distribute information.” Factors will include whether the results include outdated information about you, as well as whether there’s a “public interest in the information—for example, information about financial scams, professional malpractice, criminal convictions, or public conduct of government officials.”

The form is for Europeans only. The person has to select their country from a dropdown menu of 32 countries and must provide some form of identity verification and check a box certifying that the “information in this notification is accurate and that I am the person affected by the web pages identified, or I am authorized by that person to submit this request.”

People are required to provide the URL they want removed along with an explanation.

No appeal

Google has no choice but to abide by the court’s decision and, because it is the highest court in Europe, there is no appeal.

For more, see Anne Collier’s post, Remember: The ‘right to be forgotten’ is shared

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Jimmy Iovine And Eddie Cue On Apple/Beats Deal

Eddie Cue and Jimmy Iovine (photo: Larry Magid)

Eddie Cue and Jimmy Iovine (photo: Larry Magid)

(Rancho Palos Verdes, CA) Edie Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of Internet Software and Services and Beats co-founder Jimmy Iovine took the stage at Recode.net’s Code Conference Wednesday night to shed light on the Apple acquisition of Beats, announced a few hours earlier.

Beats makes a popular line of headphones and operates a streaming music service called Beats Music. With the deal, both Iovine and his partner, rapper Dr. Dre (Andre Romelle Young), become Apple employees.

When asked by Code co-host Walt Mossberg why Apple acquired Beats Music rather than start its own service, Cue said “We don’t do everything… We saw an opportunity with Beats that’s unique. We thought that could really accelerate us.”

Iovine was upbeat about Apple. “We’re creating something that has to have a feel. Apple has a lot of information about music and what people listen to and what they like.” He also quipped “We wanted to move into a better neighborhood so I made a deal with Apple.” Iovine said that Apple “Moves like a small company but it’s gigantic.”

It’s quite the neighborhood. The deal, worth $3 billion, represents a big pay day for Iovine and Dre.

Cue and Iovine have been working together for a decade on a variety of music projects and when asked why they did the deal now, Iovine responded, ”How does someone date for 10 years and just get married. It happens.

When asked if Apple was buying Beats for the cool factor, Cue said “I don’t think you buy cool. You make the best products in the world and customers love them.”

Cue also said that the Beats music service would remain on the Android platform. “It’s on Android now, and we want to keep it that way.”

On his partnership with Dr. Dre, Iovine said that ”We shared something and it wasn’t music. It was the dream of music.”

With Beats, Apple gets both a streaming music service and a headphone business. Cue told the  group of tech luminaries gathered at Code that Apple thinks “there’s a huge opportunity in headphones.” Iovine criticized the earbuds that companies like Apple bundle with their devices saying, “they make headphones to see if the machine works.”

And, when asked what he thinks of the relationship between Hollywood and Silicon Valley, Iovine delivered one of the best lines of the night. “In the music business everyone is desperately insecure but the guys in Silicon Valley seem to be over confident.” Cue sees a “lack of respect on both sides.”


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