Category Archives: comment

image

BT selling Openzone wifi access by default through its customers broadband, some do not realise it

Yesterday I spent some time helping a small business sort out its new broadband and voice over IP system. They have signed up for BT business broadband and were supplied with a pre-configured BT Business Hub, a combined ADSL router, switch and wifi access point.

I was surprised to discover that the hub was preconfigured to share the wifi connection to the whole wide world, via BT’s Openzone service.

Openzone is not a free service, although many BT customers have unlimited access as part of their broadband package. Non-BT customers who want to use it have to pay BT for access minutes.

Why would anyone want to do that? Here is the reasoning BT offers in its FAQ:

Why would I want to enable the BT Openzone service on my hub?

With the growing need for people to work how, where and when they choose, Wi-Fi users provides a great opportunity for Wi-Fi access on the move.

Wi-Fi users requiring access on the move are constantly looking for new hotspot locations, as the UK’s Wi-Fi footprint continues to expand.

The BT Openzone service on the BT Business Hub can provide the same Wi-Fi access that ‘premium’ hotspots offer, but without the infrastructure costs. Businesses enabling this service on their hubs can raise the profile of their business in hotspot directories and generate a new revenue stream through voucher resale.

Well, anyone can resell Openzone access vouchers; it is not linked to the access you are offering so it is incorrect to call it a benefit. This is unlike BT FON, which is a similar facility for home broadband customers, but with the difference that if you offer hotspot access through your broadband, then you also get it free from others. The real benefit is that if BT has lots of customers who do this, you are more likely to get hotspot access yourself when out and about.

The benefit for BT is more obvious. More wifi hot spots, more revenue from Openzone customers.

Now, what about the downside? BT has a whole series of FAQ responses addressing understandable concerns like: does it impact security, what about someone visiting an illegal site, what about performance?

Despite BT’s reassurance, the security question is easy to answer. Opening your wifi access point to the general public cannot improve your security, but it could weaken it. The cautious should turn it off.

The key question though: are BT customers fully aware of what they have agreed to? I asked the business owner who had dealt with BT, and he had no idea that the general public was being allowed to ride the broadband access he had paid for, with any revenue going to BT.

Further, it is on by default, and BT admits it could impair performance:

If your broadband connection has reduced bandwidth (less than 1Mbps), your private broadband traffic may be overwhelmed. BT recommend that you disable the service via your BT Business Hub’s web interface to improve performance. For further information on how to do this, please see How can I turn my BT Openzone service on and off?

Note:

As the hub’s default setting is for the service to be enabled, you need to disable the service again if you perform a factory reset in the future.

While I have little doubt that the small print of the BT agreement permits this Openzone element, I still question the ethics of BT selling its broadband service, and then selling the same service again to the general public, without directly sharing any revenue with the first purchaser, and without a clear opt-in.

Battle of the portables: Netbook vs Apple iPad 2

A semi-serious comparison

The popularity of tablets has seriously undermined the market for netbooks, according to many reports. But to what extent are the two comparable, and if they are, is a tablet unequivocally superior? I’m asking the question as much as answering, because I am trying out an iPad 2 and intrigued to see to what extent it can replace the netbook with which I normally travel. I have found I prefer the netbook to a laptop when out and about: the lightness and long battery life is worth the performance limitations for me.

The comparison is not straightforward. An iPad is a thing of beauty, whereas a typical netbook is an obvious compromise, nearly a laptop but limited in memory and performance. For some people that is enough; they will say, it is not about features, it is about the experience, and it is night and day.

Even so there are things that the netbook does better. What follows are some notes on the subject, based on the iPad vs a Toshiba NB 300 netbook with which I am familiar. I may add or amend the entries, so check back for updates.

1. Price

iPad2: £399 (wi-fi with 16GB)

Toshiba netbook: £230.00 (based on typical current price of NB305)

Winner: netbook

the netbook comes with Windows 7 starter, a crippled version of Windows, and only 1MB RAM. You probably want to add 1GB RAM (£17.00). If you want to join your netbook to a business domain you’ll need to upgrade Windows 7 to the Professional version; if you want to get rid of the annoying ads in Office Starter you’ll need to upgrade Office too.

2. Ease of setup:

iPad2: Switch on, and it asks you to connect to a computer running iTunes. This actually has its annoyances. iTunes is rather slow and bloated especially on Windows. When you connect, the default is auto-sync, which means iTunes will attempt to copy its music library to your iPad, likely not have enough room, and copy a random selection. If you have an iPhone, you will also get all your iPhone apps copied across, like it or not, which means you have to delete the ones you do not want.

Toshiba netbook: I recounted the “fairly dismal” experience of setting up a Toshiba netbook here. The main problem is all the trialware that is pre-installed, plus a bunch of Toshiba utilities of varying quality. Rather than repeat it all here, I will show show the screenshot a few minutes after first power-on:

Winner by a mile: iPad 2

3. Boot time

iPad 2: instant

Toshiba: ages. Better from hibernation, though still much slower than iPad 2. Better from sleep, but I am not a big fan of sleep because it drains the battery and occasionally crashes on resume.

Winner by a mile: iPad 2

4. Multi-tasking, or the ability to do several things at once

iPad 2: does multi-task but the experience is not great. Only one app is visible at a time, and to switch you have to double-click the big button, swipe through a list of apps, and tap the one you want.

Toshiba: It’s Windows. Fortunately Microsoft changed its mind about having a limit of three apps you can run at once. You can run lots of apps, switch between them with alt-tab or by clicking a taskbar icon, and size them small so you can see more than one on-screen at one time.

The simplicity of one app to view is meant to be an advantage of iOS; but while the Windows model can be troublesome – see the above screenshot for proof- I’d like to see some improvement in this part of iOS. It is not a matter of screen size: the screen size on the netbook is similar to that of the iPad.

Winner: netbook

5. Keyboard

iPad 2: soft keyboard that obscures half the screen, or add-on physical keyboard.

Toshiba netbook: traditional clamshell design with integrated keyboard.

I do a lot of typing, and my speed is substantially better on a physical keyboard. However I do not like carrying lots of accessories, and while the iPad add-on  keyboard is fine at a desk, if you are in a confined space such as an aeroplane the clamshell design works better than a loose keyboard.

That said, I recall hearing how a school that issued all its pupils and staff with iPads was surprised by how few wanted keyboards. Some kids apparently prefer the soft keyboard to “all those buttons”, so it may depend what you are used to. However, even if you replaced the “Keyboard” heading with “Text input”, my vote would still go to the netbook.

Winner: netbook

6. Touch control

iPad 2: yes

Toshiba netbook: no

I’m putting this in just to make the point. Even a Windows tablet, with a stylus, is less convenient to use with touch than an iPad.

Winner by a mile: iPad 2

7. Applications

iPad 2: A bazillion apps available in the app store, cheap or free to purchase, a snap to install. Not so many for iPad as for iPhone, but still a good number.

Toshiba netbook: It’s Windows. They are a bit slow to load, but I run Microsoft Office, Outlook, several web browsers, music apps, games, network utilities and all sorts of other stuff.

Winner: I am going to call this a tie. There are some beautiful apps for the iPad 2, but I miss the features of Windows apps like Office. With the netbook my experience is that I can do almost anything that I can do with a desktop PC, although more slowly, but that is not the case with the iPad 2. On the other hand, the way apps can be installed and removed in a blink on the iPad 2 is a delight compared to Windows setup.

8. File system and storage

iPad 2: There is a file system, but it is hidden from the user.

Toshiba netbook: Yes. I can save a document from one app, and open it in another. I can connect to it over a network and copy files from one folder to another. Not possible on the iPad 2 without workarounds like iTunes and DropBox; and even then some things are difficult. For example, you cannot save a document from Pages on the iPad directly to your DropBox. Let me add that the netbook has a 250GB hard drive, whereas the iPad gets by with a maximum of 32GB solid state storage – though also note that solid state storage is faster to access, and that because the iPad is designed to work like that it does not feel particularly space-constrained.

Winner by a mile: netbook

9. Connectivity

iPad 2: Wireless network, or devices that accept Apple’s proprietary connector. You can attach the iPad to a PC with USB, but only iTunes really understands it, unless you just want to copy photos and videos. Apple offers an add-on camera connectivity kit for downloading photos from a camera, and AirPrint for printing over a network. It is annoying that you have to buy add-ons to do what a netbook does out of the box.

Toshiba netbook: Three standard USB ports, you can attach external hard drives or most USB devices such as printers.

Winner: netbook

10. Battery life

iPad 2: Apple says up to 10 hours, but I have never managed as much as that. Maybe 7 or 8 hours.

Toshiba netbook: I get about 6 hours on wifi, more than that without.

In practice, I have no quibble with either machine – though I am envious of Amazon Kindle owners with their one month charge.

Winner by a whisker: iPad 2.

11. Portability

iPad 2: no bigger than a pad of paper. It is not exactly pocketable, but slips easily into any kind of bag or briefcase. It perhaps needs the protection of a case, but even in a case it is not bulky.

Toshiba netbook: fatter and uglier than an iPad, but still very portable. The worst thing is the power supply, if you need it: the Apple mains adaptor is much smaller than Toshiba’s effort.

Winner by a whisker: iPad 2

12. Watching videos

iPad 2: Great. It is like a portable TV or DVD player, but better – as long as you have a strong wifi connection and BBC iPlayer or the like. Just prop it up on its stand (most cases have one) and enjoy.

Toshiba netbook: it works but the graphics capabilities are inferior and it feels like you are looking at a netbook.

Winner by a mile: iPad 2

13. Built in cameras and microphone

iPad 2: two cameras, front and back, and a microphone that works.

Toshiba netbook: webcam and microphone, but they are junk; I have not seen a netbook with anything decent.

Winner by a mile: iPad 2

14. Reading eBooks

iPad 2: iBooks app and Amazon Kindle app. I prefer the Kindle app, though whether it will survive Apple’s assault on alternative readers I am not sure.

Toshiba netbook: Kindle app, as well as Adobe Reader etc.

A tablet is great for reading, much better than a netbook. However despite its humble appearance Amazon’s Kindle device really is better for reading, thanks to a screen you can read in sunlight, much longer battery life, and free internet access to download books everywhere.

Winner: iPad 2, though a Kindle is better

15. Attract admiring glances

iPad 2: Yes

Toshiba netbook: No

Winner: I did say “semi-serious”.

The rise of the eBook is a profound change in our culture

The Association of American Publishers has announced that in February 2011 ebooks ranked above print in all trade categories. Note that these figures are for the USA, and that in revenue ebooks are well behind print – $164.1M vs $441.7M. It is also worth noting that print sales are falling fast, 24.8% year on year, whereas ebooks are growing fast, 202.3% year on year.

image

This does sound like a reprise of what has happened in the music industry, where broadly speaking physical formats are heading toward obsolescence, download is growing, but the overall pie is smaller because of the ease of piracy. There is perhaps another more subtle point, that when the marginal cost of production is near zero, prices too tend to race to the bottom in a competitive market.

Books are not equivalent to music. Physical books still have advantages. They have zero battery requirements, work well in sunlight, some have beautiful pictures, you can write on them and fold back the corner of a page, and so  on. There are more advantages to ebooks though, in cost, weight, searchability, interactivity, and freedom from the constraints of a printed page. Years ago I was in the book publishing industry, and convinced that ebooks would take off much sooner than in fact they did. Much money was wasted in the light of false dawns. I remember – though it was long after I was involved – how some booksellers invested in Microsoft’s .lit format, readable on PCs and Pocket PCs, only to discover that there was little market for it.

What changed? It was no single thing; but factors include the advent of high-contrast screens that are both low-power and readable outside; the appearance of dedicated tablet-style readers that are lightweight but with book-sized screens; the marketing muscle of Amazon with the Kindle and Apple with the iPad – though the iPad screen is sub-optimal for reading – and some mysterious change in public perception that caused ebooks to transition from niche to mainstream.

Books are not going away of course, just as CDs and even vinyl records are still with us. I think though we can expect more high street closures, and libraries wondering what exactly their role is meant to be, and that the publishing industry is going to struggle with this transition just as the music industry has done. Ebook growth will continue, and as Amazon battles its rivals we will see the price of the Kindle fall further. Apple will lock its community more tightly to iTunes, as its policy on forbidding in-app purchases that do not go through its own App Store and pay the Apple tax plays out.

That is all incidental. What I am struggling to put into words is what the decline of the printed word means for our culture. You can argue that it is merely a symptom of what the internet has brought us, which is true in its way; but it is a particularly tangible symptom. No longer will you be able to go into someone’s room and see clues about their interests and abilities by glancing at bookshelves.

I am on a train, and by one of life’s strange synergies someone has just sat down next to me and pulled out a Kindle.

I do not mean to be negative. Much though I love books, there are now better ways to store and read words, and while the printed word may be in decline, the written word has never been more popular. I am in no doubt though that this is a profound change.