Tech, Uncategorized

Smarterphones

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Sony Smart Tags

It has been a dream for decades of having computers that communicate with each other seamlessly, that can access all your data anywhere and could even be used to communicate.  Now, of course, it’s not a dream, we are living in that shiny, space-age, future… just without the flying cars and moonbases and spandex for everyone – pretty certain I can live without the last one though.

The smartphone is becoming the hub of that new age and they’re becoming smarter at an incredible rate.  My phone for example is location-aware, when it detects my car stereo’s bluetooth receiver I’ve told it to increase the screen brightness and it automatically launches the remote control app so I have full swiping and voice control of my tunes rather than having to look away from the road.  It could also switch on the GPS, launch the sat-nav or whatever else.  It can be set to run the music app when I plug in headphones, automatically adjusting the volume, turning notifications off, changing screen brightness etc, then changing it all back when I unplug them again.

There are apps which can unlock your phone’s lockscreen and set it up for home use as soon as it detects your WiFi, or if it knows you’re home based on GPS, Google Now (and equivalents) can even work out where home and work are.  I’m surprised the thing doesn’t say “ahh, home at last, how about a cup of tea.”  One day it will, and through the Internet of Things it’ll instruct the kettle to switch on too no doubt.

Another technology I was mistrustful of when it’s main use (in tech) was for contactless credit cards is NFC (Near Field Communication) but since buying an NFC equipped bluetooth adaptor for my old home hi-fi and a set of NFC tags to go with the phone I’m a convert to that too.  Once programmed the same app on the phone that detects the car’s bluetooth detects a quick tap of the back of the phone against a specific tag and changes settings or runs an app as required.  I have one that I can tap before leaving the house which activates the mobile data, once home I can tap it again to switch it off – which means I’m not disturbed by emails about sales and “recommendations” from retailers in the middle of the night (I switch the WiFi off at night too).

Apple’s iBeacon technology is allowing retailers to know you’re in store and can provide relevant information to your phone, which has inevitably created some privacy concerns but such is the way with new technology like this.  As I’ve mentioned before apps such as Siri and Google Now tailor the information they give to you based on where you are, pre-emptively giving you travel info for your journey home or tomorrow’s weather.

All this location and context aware gadgetry isn’t just about clever tricks any more, it’s becoming genuinely useful and convenient, giving us devices that adapt to the situation they are in rather than being set up manually at every change.  I used to say that computers aren’t clever enough to know what you want them to do, now though, it looks like they’re getting there.

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Tech, Uncategorized

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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Tech, Uncategorized

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.

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