Thursday, November 09, 2006

Time to look at Draft N

Time for a re-think (another one). I'd say now is just about the right time to start looking at Draft- N Wi-Fi.

Unless, of course, you're planning to fill an office with Wi-Fi, in which case your suppliers are very sensibly holding off for a bit longer.

The Wi-Fi Alliance has announced it will be branding Draft N. The top four laptop makers are putting it in their machines. Intel's bringing its own chips out next year, and adding it to Centrino.

It won't be in enterprise kit for a bit longer - though I wonder if Cisco is going to be looking closely at the business its Linksys susbsidiary is doing with Draft N products.

Most people still don't need it of course - especislly in the home where it's getting used most. If your uplink is less then 8 Mbit/s and you're getting that sort of throughput to all your PCs already, it's only going to show any benefits on file transfers inside your LAN.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

I've got WiMax!

Today, my WiMax connection arrived: I now have a 4Mbit/s duplex wireless broadband link, uncontended, beamed 6.5km from central London. The people at Urban WiMax offered a free trial earlier this year (it's commercial contracts only now) and liked the idea of having a journalist on their books. There's more about them in the FT (subscription required).

Urban WiMax has been offering 4 to 10 Mbit/s full duplex, using WiMax links in the light-licensed 5.8GHz spectrum or in 4.9 GHz under a trial arrangement.

Mine's in 4.9GHz, using an Airspan CPE antenna and a security gateway box from Billion (not heard of them before).

The sales director at Urban Wimax, Colin Flynn, says they now have meshed base stations on several London hotels, and paying customers including churches and content providers.

I love the name "Urban Wimax". Wasn't this originally a technology for rural areas, where the wires wouldn't reach? Surely there's so much fibre and cable in town we don't need it here? Nope, says Flynn. One of his London customers came to him because they couldn't get DSL despite being only a kilometre from the exchange. The cable run was effectively more like seven km.

I would have expected users to hesitate over the reliability of wireless links, but Flynn says they don't - largely because the competition is useless: "We're in an environment where people expect poor service from the wired providers." At a consumer level, he's certainly right: I've had issues with my provider. It's working OK now, but I don't know anyone who really trusts their provider.

Some of the customers take WiMax as a back-up, and then switch over to use it as their main link, he says.

He's also not worried about competition from Pipex. The presence of a big, well-known brand, has kick-started a lot of interest, he says.

The installation was painless: a half-hour signal test on Monday, and a two-hour visit today, during which time Marcel and James from Urban Wimax screwed an antenna on a bracket to my house, and ran a cable inside.

I'm a bit outside their normal catchment area (as well as their normal business demographic). They found the signal easily though, pointing the antenna through a gap between the neighbours' roofs.
I'll take better pictures, but in this one, you can see the clump of buildings it's aimed at.

My antenna is pointed at the pale building indicated by a tiny red arrow.

You can also just see the Post Office Tower you can see next to the chimney. Ready for BT to make its big WiMax play someday?

Who wants a Wi-Fi Phone? Actually, I do!

Can I change my mind? Contraary to my last post, I think the issues with Wi-Fi handsets are well on the way to being solved.

What's happened to me? I've been using a Nokia E61. Now, I'd heard about the E-series, but remained sceptical. Having used it I found in practice it gives very good battery life in either Wi-Fi or cellular mode (leave them both on and the battery drains noticeably quicker than an ordinary phone). And the voip options for it, like Truphone, are actually useful.

Apart from anything else, the phone -- the first Nokia I've got to know properly for some time -- is well designed and does what it should do.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Wi-Fi weakness sends Adobe camping

I enjoyed a visit to Adobe's travelling Acrobat roadshow the other week. The company's trining 5000 people in the new Acrobat, over the next few months - in a tent.

There's a small presentation theatre, and another room with a Stratus fault-tolerant server, and thirty laptops, each equipped with a scanner and video camera, for people to try the software.

Why in a tent? It's the only way to get a predictable environment where they know it's going to work. In the tent each laptop has a Gig. in a hotel meeting room, they'd be relying on Wi-Fi. And we all know that wouldn't be good enough.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Who wants Wi-Fi in a phone?

Is it possible that we don't actually care about Wi-Fi in phones? There's still not many out there, and I'm wondering if there's much demand either.

There've been a couple of major-ish launches in the last two weeks - well, actually, two launches of well-known products (the Blackberry and the Treo) re-jigged to fit particular niches.

We can enjoy the irony that the Palm Treo looks more and more like a Blackberry while the Blackberry Pearl is trying to look like a feature phone. But that's superficial, as they each have their own user interface (or in Palm's case, Microsoft's user interface) and their own fans.

What's interesting is that both had features added to meet market needs, but neither of them has Wi-Fi. And at the press conferences, when asked why not, the marketing people of both companies made it quite clear that they thought about it and rejected it out of hand as a dumb idea.

If your handset's battery has just been drained by Wi-Fi, it's no good as a phone, said Palm's Ed Colligan. RIM's Charmaine Eggberry laughed at the idea they'd use space in their smallest Blackberry to add a battery-eating technology.

This kind of thing must be a bit dismal for the people (mostly software makers for converged services) who've been telling me all year that phones are all going to have Wi-Fi, and converged services will drop out of the sky.

Well they might do that. But not just yet.

What about the demand for them? I don't know in great detail, but I have noticed changes in what this country's metropolitan Wi-Fi people have been saying. Metro Wi-Fi was first pitched as a great way for local government employees to keep in touch with their office systems on the move, using Wi-Fi bandwidth, which would be free once the network was rolled out.

All the local government people I've spoken to lately say they aren't doing that. Their staff are on GPRS or 3G data, because it's got better coverage, the network and handsets are provided and maintained by a third party, and the batteries last longer.

(there have been other changes too in the metro pitch, such as the idea that it would provide connectivity to the disadvantaged, and heal the digital divide, but we'll go into that later).

For now - who really needs dual-mode Wi-Fi handsets?

Thursday, September 07, 2006

BlackBerry Pearl and the size obsession

RIM repeated two mantras at the BlackBerry event yesterday. One was about size (the other was about choice - we'll come to that later). You can't be too slim, is basically what they said - and I'm coming to see they may be right.

RIM has good, single-minded engineers, who work well to an over-riding single task. In earlier Blackberrys this goal was: do email. Throw out everything else that doesn't do email, and might waste power, screen or device space.

This time round RIM had a slightly more complext overall goal - appeal to consumers - but RIM boiled it down to a single-minded task for its engineers: be SMALL. Have a camera and storage and a media player and all that, and be a BlackBerry, but be small.

Now, my conscious reaction is to sneer. Oh really, are people so fickle that they will pick a device purely on the basis of its size? Surely functions matter more!

I've written stories based on this opinion. Last week, I wrote on ZDNet about how users are too dumb to pick up smartphones, because they "can't tell the difference" between a data-oriented device and a phone with a camera.

Now, I think my take was completely wrong, and I base this result on unbiased user research.

On Monday, my phone died and I needed a new one from T-Mobile. I rang up and asked what I could have on my current plan (or, actually, on the new Flext plan which sounds like a boon for people like me who don't want to understand plans).

I ruled out the expensive options, and found myself offered a Nokia E70, Symbian smartphone. I know people who are happy with this, and it's widely seen as "the Symbian phone you wind up using". I checked the size, the weight, and the talk time, and rejected it.

Instead, I picked up the next in a series of Sony Ericssons, the W810.

I am someone who CAN tell the difference between a smartphone and a feature phone, and I still went for the feature phone. In terms of my news story last week, I am a dumb consumer. So much so, that I now have a phone with a Walkman brand on it. Can I erase it?

But, here's the point. Just as RIM predicted, I chose on the basis of size. How puerile!

My Sony Ericsson Pearl is sitting on my desk now, next to my BlackBerry Pearl. And I'm ashamed to say, it's the first smartphone I've seen that I can imagine owning.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Aruba going for IPO?

Aruba is planning an IPO, according to Unstrung, who are the kind of people who would know. Wireless LAN users will be interested because the company will have to publish
results (WLAN vendors have so far been pretty secretive), and also because it will come under the control of shareholders. We'll have to wait and see whether they are "ignorant", as Unstrung suggests.

I'd pretty much given up on any of the companies in this space actually going public. They're all founded on the premise of explosive growth, with the old model that they'll do an IPO and get loads of money that way, if they can't persuade Cisco or Nortel or one of the other big players to buy them first. That model hasn't worked this century (except for Airespace), largely because there's only really one company ( Cisco ) left that's ready and able to pay the sort of money the VCs would expect for these start-ups..

I've been thinking that enterprise WLANs is turning out to be the kind of slow-growing area where IPOs and big buy-outs just don't happen.

Aruba's new CEO, Dominic Orr, who I last met in June doesn't agree. Perhaps he's thinking of the kind of froth we've seen around Web 2.0, and VoIP players like Skype and Vonage (though Vonage's IPO was apparently a flop).

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Internet voice hits a time warp...

I just made a bid to catch up with the rest of the world, and found myself travelling back in time. I made a VoIP call from a public hotspot - And found myself using an old-fashioned red telephone box, and a phone that resembles my old 1990s Nokia, in a manner resembling the 1980s Rabbit network, where customers could make phone calls hanging around on street corners.

I've got a Vonage Wi-Fi phone on test, which can make calls from my home Wi-Fi, or any other hotspot that doesn't require a web browser and password. The Cloud has a deal to let Vonage calls through without any registration, so I can use this phone - at least in theory - at any Cloud hotspot.

I'm at the Techworld office in Gray's Inn Road, so I search for local hotspots, and try The Puzzle pub first. No joy there - there's Wi-Fi, but it claims to be BT OpenZone. So I head for a BT payphone in Bedford Way, where the Cloud also promises service.

Sure enough, there's not just a payphone, but an old fashioned callbox. My phone detects an access point, and I make a call.

I'm still unsure though. There's no visual evidence that this phone box is actually providing the Wi-Fi (it's metal - shouldn't there be an antenna on the outside?). And, though the phone did detect a Cloud hotspot, it's hard to tell whether it connected to that or another one...