On Magical Connections

wireless router

wireless router (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

I’ve been having communication difficulties.  As I connected and disconnected phone extensions I found an old cable-reel extension lead and remembered how, ten years ago, this was my connection to the internet.

Back then, as now, the computer was ten metres from the phone socket so in the dim, distant dial-up days dis this was extended along the length of the apartment and plugged into my clear red plastic modem and the noisy connection process could begin.  Once finished it would be wound up again and slotted back down the side of the sofa.  In those days the dangers of the internet as espoused by the tabloids missed out my own addition – a trip hazard.

Now, of course we connect laptops, PCs, phones and tablets even speakers wirelessly and speedily, it’s wonderful to be able to play music from the tablet in my hand to the speaker in front of the TV, to control my car stereo from the touchscreen phone by the steering wheel, share pictures between cameras and phones with a touch and to be able to read books, articles and whole encyclopedia’s on a portable handheld slab of plastic and glass.  We truly are at the beginning of a fantastic age, no matter what the naysayers, er say.  Ok, the technology isn’t yet in the hands of everyone but it is becoming cheaper and easier to use so that more people can have the greatest collection of humankind’s knowledge literally at their fingertips, along with cat videos of course.

As Arthur C Clarke said “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” and although we don’t really think of our free and open mine of information as mystical it is a wonder, especially in the current climate of big media wanting us to subscribe to everything.  Thirty years ago I watched The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and wondered whether we could have such an electronic book as that.  Right now, we have so much more.  So next time your wireless connection stutters be thankful that you don’t have to unravel that extension lead.

 

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It Just Works

English: 2008 Computex: ASUS SP-BT23 Bluetooth...

English: 2008 Computex: ASUS SP-BT23 Bluetooth Speaker. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The phrase “it just works” is one of Apple’s key marketing ideas and it encompasses the concept that users should be able to pick up an iPhone, iPad and use it, without any instructions and if they want to connect it to their Macbook, their Airplay speakers or to another iDevice then that will all Just Work too.  They achieve this by having a limited range of products and by using mostly proprietary standards – like Airplay – and because of these two things the technology doesn’t have to deal with the massive variations of hardware encountered by other devices; one Apple device knows what another one is called and how it talks, so to speak, already.

The thing is this illusion, that this is as a result of their products being better designed, is a half-truth – competing technologies only tend to require a couple of clicks to work together, like getting my Sony phone to play music via my bluetooth headset adaptor or hi-fi adaptor – all I need to do is press a button on the adaptor and select the output source on the phone, or my tablet, or laptop even.  The thing is that there is an increasing expectation that you shouldn’t need to do anything yourself to make it work, even if it is just pressing a button.

To this ends we see products like a set of £1200 speakers which, instead of connecting via bluetooth, require a dongle to be plugged into the bottom of your phone or tablet like some kind of digital limpet, making your device more cumbersome but meaning that all you have to do is plug it in.  A case of making it easy taking precedence over the handling of the technology.  And then there’s another side to all this – the ecosystem.  Apple in particular make all these add-ons, or licence the technology to other companies to make docks etc, that all work seamlessly together but the same limitation to Apple hardware that makes it possible for it to all work together means it’d be awfully expensive to switch brands later.

The situation in the Android/PC camp though is improving though.  Near Field Communication (NFC) tech is allowing speakers and more that connect using bluetooth via a simple tap of the phone on the top of the peripheral, the proximity allowing the two devices to know that they’re compatible and meant to be together, like silicon blind-date, if you like.  I have a smart BluRay player that has a companion Android app that automatically found and connected to the player via the WiFi network and on a similar vein modern WiFi routers can even connect to devices automatically using Wireless Protected Setup – although the latter still needs some user input, after all it’s not practical to carry your desktop PC and tap it on the router.  Another example is the WiFi printer that only requires a single button press to connect to your PC the first time it’s installed.

The dream of smart appliances all talking to each other via wireless networks is starting to come true but for it to be truly universal manufacturers need to use open standards and as users we need to accept that sometimes we’ll need to read the manual, or on-screen instructions, and push some buttons to help them along.

My Stereo’s Three Lives

KMNR's extensive CD collection

KMNR’s extensive CD collection (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have an old Philips stereo, it sounds lovely with crisp, crackle-free audio, it used to be my alarm clock and saw daily use playing CDs but has languished in my living room, underused, being merely decorative for many years.  It has a cassette deck along with the CD player, it doesn’t have an iPod dock or even a 3.5mm input jack.  First the cassettes gave way to CDs and now MP3s are the norm, perhaps it could have been the end for my humble stereo.

But no, I was not prepared to give up its audio abilities that easily.  Now it is an amplifier, with some adaptors and a bluetooth receiver attached to its rear it has a new lease of life.  I have just about finished uploading my 6,300 track music library to Google Play Music and as such can play any of my collection via my Nexus 7 tablet over bluetooth onto my venerable old stereo.  The old Philips now effectively has a touchscreen remote interface and access to six-thousand searchable tracks, all of which sound as good (to me at least) as they did when I first listened to them on that same stereo on the days I bought the CDs.

I am still awed by what modern technology can achieve with these powerful mobile devices and cloud services.  Especially when I can rope in my good old tech too.

Past Time

Longines pocket watch

Longines pocket watch (Photo credit: xddorox)

A piece by David Yanofsky on the Quartz site recently highlighted a trend that I’d not thought about but I now realise I do and a few people I know do too.

Mobile phones have become the modern equivalent of the pocket watch.  I still always wear a wristwatch, most of the time when I need to know the time locating my phone would take too much, time.  But when I’m in a pub I’ll pull out my phone to check the time rather than look at my watch for some reason – though probably it’s more an issue of visibility in some places.

The article goes on to suggest that as phones increase in size and complexity this is not a good habit to get into as retrieving devices from pockets and bags is inconvenient and that tech companies are already eyeing up the wrist real-estate vacated by ticking timekeepers and replacing them with smartwatches which will keep track of your messages, calls, fitness, reminders, oh and tell the time while your phone stays tucked away safely somewhere on your person.

An interesting idea, true, but I like my analogue watches (yes, I collect them too) and if I don’t want to look at what my phone is trying to tell me I can leave it where it is – even if it is on the shelf, at home, because I forgot it.

[Quartz]