Category Archives: Industry News

Why my FIOS is slower than your cable modem (and how I fixed it)

As a technology addict, I jumped on Verizon FIOS as soon as it was available in my area. When I moved last year, I took the service with me. When Cablevision tried to sell me an old-fashioned cable-modem, I didn’t even consider it. Why would I want a measly 25/5 service, when I have a 75/25 fiber optic cable for the same price? As an trained computer scientist, I happen to know that light is very fast. Take that, electrons, I don’t want your cable-wire technology!

And for a while, it was pretty good. But, strangely, Youtube would be pretty slow a lot of the time. Initially, one would think that the problem was with Youtube. But, Youtube is owned by Google. It seems a little strange that Google wouldn’t upgrade their servers or network if they need to. Still, it’s just the one site. Everything else seems to be fine, and very FAST, just like Verizon said. But then, more things started getting slow. Like Netflix. For a while, half the time I tried to watch a show it would just sit there and buffer for a while. And when it did go through, the quality was pretty poor. Well, I thought, Netflix is growing so fast, they probably aren’t able to keep up. But, actually, Netflix runs on Amazon’s computer cluster, which is widely known for it’s scalability. They roughly coined the term “cloud.” Could they really be that slow? Finally, Hulu started having problems. Shows would stutter and stop, and need to be rebuffered. Yet, the problem seemed to be with just Hulu — other sites worked fine, and I got the full bandwidth I expected from speed tests, just like Verizon claimed.

Something was fishy. It’s strange, right, that only tv-like services were slow, but other things seemed fine. Downloads were fast. Speed tests were fast. TV shows and movies were slow. That’s a little too convenient, since Verizon sells their own TV service. “Oh, Netflix is slow? Why don’t you order on-demand through FIOS?” Really Verizon? Really?

It’s no accident. Verizon, along with many other internet carriers, has been fighting a long war against Net Neutrality. Why should customers be able to visit any site they want? Just like you pay extra for HBO or Cinimax, Verizon wants you to pay them extra for Netflix, and Youtube. Here’s a direct quote from a cable executive: “Why should we carry data for free?” They believe that because their customers watch a lot of Netflix, then Netflix should pay Verizon to allow it. In other scenarios, this behavior would be called “monopolistic behavior,” or “a protection racket.” What’s roughly happening is that Verizon is saying to Netflix, “It’d be awfully unfortunate if something happened to your data before it reached the user.”

How did we end up here, where Verizon is even allowed to do this? Well, there are a series of articles from ArsTechnica which explain that in a lot of detail (and I recommend reading them!). I’m going to explain it the way I like things explained to me — as if I were a 5-year-old.

The short version is that the FCC, which regulates cable companies, published a rule which roughly said “Attention internet companies: please get along and don’t throttle each other.” Verizon was able to get around this rule by saying “sure, we’re not going to throttle any service. But if a router happens to break, we may not fix it unless they pay us.” Amazingly, the FCC was ok with this. But, it really wasn’t enough for Verizon, because they wanted more extortion power. So, they sued the FCC in federal court, and won. So, now there is no rule.

Sadly, the FCC is run by a former cable company lobbyist. He made an official statement saying “this is great, now cable companies can operate without regulation. We won’t try to put new rules in, or challenge the court case, but We’ll keep an eye out in case it gets really out of control. Promise.”

Verizon is pretty happy with this. So, they turned around and told Netflix “oh, you thought you were paying us before? The price just went up.”

There’s only one problem. I want to watch Netflix, and I can’t because it’s too slow. Verizon doesn’t really care, and to the extent they do, they think I’ll just buy more from them. Luckily, I live in a place where there’s a competitor. As it turns out, Cablevision has a history of not blocking netflix, or hulu, or youtube. So, yes, fiber optics are usually faster than cable modems. But not when Verizon has their finger on the spigot.

So, how did I fix this problem? I canceled my FIOS subscription and signed up for Cablevision. And then I watched a movie.

I recommend everyone do the same. Verizon’s unbelievably poor behavior only works because because they think they own the customer. Show them that they don’t — if they hurt your internet, then you will switch to another provider. In the end, I don’t care if the problem is because the “network” is slow, or Verizon is throttling, or there is a peering disagreement. All I want to do is watch Netflix. And if Verizon can’t provide that, I’ll find someone who can.

Critical Reading:
http://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2013/07/why-youtube-buffers-the-secret-deals-that-make-and-break-online-video/
http://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2014/02/netflix-performance-on-verizon-and-comcast-has-been-dropping-for-months/
http://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2014/02/verizon-seeks-payment-for-carrying-netflix-traffic-wsj-reports/
http://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2014/01/how-net-neutrality-shenanigans-could-put-the-hurt-on-netflix/
http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2014/02/fcc-wont-appeal-verizon-ruling-will-regulate-net-on-case-by-case-basis/

PS: Why Cablevision isn’t using this as a major marketing tool is beyond me. I would have switched a long time ago if they had run an ad campaign promising Net Neutrality policies. If anyone from Cablevision wants to contact me, I can tell you exactly how to use this to your advantage.

iPhone SDK: Correcting BREW and J2me

Apple seems to be getting a lot of negative press on its recent SDK announcement. Much of the criticism seems to focus around two issues: That not all functionality of the phone is accessible via the SDK, and that Apple controls the distribution method to the phone. I’ll address the second point first. Some perspective on the history of apps on cell phones will do a lot to put this in perspective, and see why these decisions were made as tradeoffs, and actually strengthen the position of the iPhone as a leader in custom applications.

For a minute, put yourself in the mindset of a developer of phone software. Arguably, having developed applications which were sold on Verizon Wireless and other cell carriers, this is a bit easier for this author. As a developer then, and attempting to receive some sort of compensation for your work, it would seem that there are too many platforms to develop for, all of them bad for different reasons.

Qualcomm’s Binary Runtime Environment for Wireless (aka BREW) is used by several major wireless carriers. From a technical perspective, it is a C-based API, which means that the learning curve is slight for C programmers. The best thing it has going for it, though, is that there is a centralized game store and market place. In theory, developers post their applications and games up to Qualcomm’s website. Carriers look through those apps and choose which ones they want to sell to their customers. Customers have one place to go to buy apps (Verizon calls it “Get It Now“). For a developer, BREW sounds like a great model. You don’t need to worry about selling to end users, or billing, or packaging up your product and selling it in a store. Customers can go on their phone and see a list of every piece of software available to purchase. If they do buy yours, they get the price of your app added to their phone bills. Nice and simple. What could be wrong with this?

Well, as it turns out, carriers aren’t interested in providing, what is to them, low margin software to their customers. They want to be able to sell games and applications (and ringtones) mostly as a way to get customers to switch to their network, and buy their cellphones. Consequently, there is little or no incentive for a carrier to decide to actually carry the game you (the developer) posted to the Qualcomm web site. This is why if you have Verizon Wireless, almost all the games available from “Get It Now” are from either from a huge game studio like EA or Sony, or based on a popular TV Show or Movie. The carriers simply don’t want to be bothered by a plethora of developers for what they consider to be chump change. As a developer, if the carrier doesn’t choose to carry you, you are out of luck. No way to get around them, no way to appeal, do not pass go, do not collect $200.

The other major platform for phone development is Java 2 Mobile Edition (AKA, J2me). This is the complete oposite end of the spectrum. Anyone can create a J2me app. When it first came out, J2me looked very promising. Like Java, which it is a subset of, software written in J2me could be run on any phone with Java support. Customers would be free to acquire software from any developer, anywhere on the planet — the carrier wouldn’t have complete control of the application pipe like in the BREW model. This would mean that developers have a much larger market of customers to sell to. Sounds like a good solution, right?

Unfortunately, while J2me was promised to be a great equalizer, this has turned out to be far from the reality. While BREW apps do require some amount of customization for each different handset it is released on, J2ME can vary even more greatly between them. Even different phone models released by the same manufacturer may not support the same J2me program! Because of the sheer number of phones and carriers which support J2me software, it is nearly impossible for a developer to write and test software on all of them. This means that any J2me application will only run on some subset of J2me phones.

Additionally, while the phone carriers cannot blockade access to their devices, developers must figure out how to get their product in front of customers. They must conduct marketing, figure out a billing model, and make sales individually to each customer. Applications are not digitally signed (as they are in BREW), so it becomes difficult for developers to prevent piracy of their product. Combined with the fact that most phones have a horrific user interface in general, and especially for installing J2me software, there are a series of significant barriers for selling J2me software which make it unpredictable to determine beforehand whether a product will succeed. This is a scenario that deters business-minded developers.

Of course, there is also the set of “Smart Phone” platforms, Palm-OS(now defunct), Windows Mobile, and Simbian. These each have their own sets of pros and cons. Certainly they have been successful targets for some developers, but for the purposes of this article we will say that the average user of those phones are typically very different from the average user of a regular phone, and specifically of an iPhone.

This brings us to the iPhone SDK. Apple seems to have derived the strengths of the business models of both BREW and J2ME. All software will be digitally signed, and distributed centrally by Apple. The digital signatures work two ways: They protect the developer from customer piracy, and they protect the customer from mischievous developers. There will be a centralized list of applications, so users can easily browse through apps they might want to download or purchase, and billing will be handled by Apple, which allows developers to concentrate on what they should be: developing. Unlike BREW, Apple has taken a stance that encourages independent developers to target the iPhone. They will place lesser-known, less expensive, or even free applications up on their store right alongside the bigger market players. Like J2ME, developers don’t need to strike a special deal with each carrier in order to get their software into people’s hands.

So, with this perspective, what are people complaining about? That they can’t write software which unlocks the iPhone. That they can’t publish software which curtails Apple’s own SDK or Safari web browser. Make no mistake about this: those complaints are pure ridiculousness. While it is to their advantage to do so, Apple didn’t have to release an SDK at all. Looking at the leading established models of software development, BREW and J2me, we can see that the Apple model takes their strengths and leaves their weaknesses — for the benefit of all 3rd party developers, and especially the independent and open source developers! This should be self-evident by looking at who the people are who are making the complaints — unfortunately, as with all things Apple, the enormous hype machine of the Interwebs has distorted the picture. Complaints are driven by …. Sun (founder of J2me, which Apple has no use for, and which will consequently suffer), Firefox (which, while a great desktop browser, wants to get into the mobile space dominated by mobile Safari) and Opera (struggling to be relevant in any market, desktop or mobile). Obviously, these complainers have motivations that are not entirely altruistic. (Note to avoid flamewar: this author is a huge desktop Firefox fan).

The second topic of complaint is that Apple won’t allow applications to run in the background, and they won’t allow voice-over-ip applications (like Skype) to run over the cell carrier (although running over Wi-Fi is fine). These really shouldn’t be the sore points they seem. From a developer’s perspective, there are certainly neat things one could do if allowed to run applications in the background (like an IM client, for example), which aren’t really practical otherwise. However, looking from a holistic perspective, some testers found that the battery would run dry in as little as four hours while running only basic background tasks. The radio and the CPU, when used actively, use a lot of power. This isn’t Apple’s fault — it’s a law of phsyics. And while I’m sure there are many people who would like to use Skype instead of their AT&T phone minutes, I’m sure the average kindergarden student can figure out why Apple won’t allow voice-over-ip apps to run over the unlimitted data connection instead of using your talk minutes.

So, what can we conclude about Apple’s SDK decisions? Certainly, they studied the existing market and the development models. The solution they came up with, from a business sense, not only takes the best of what is out there, but also meshes extremely well with Apple’s existing iTunes one-stop-shop model for how they already handle music, TV shows, and movies. While some developers may have gripes about some of the policies of the SDK (background tasks, Sun, Opera), the limitations are in actuality completely reasonable.

While the ultimate success of custom apps on the iPhone will only be determined with time, it is certainly off to a good start. As a past independant software developer, I see all of Apple’s decisions on the SDK as smart moves (even the ones that aren’t the most convenient to me), and ultimately very good to the customer, while also being reasonable, fair, and enabling opportunity for the developer. The only ones who don’t like it are the big-name established businesses which this new model will disrupt.

SpaceX Launch Successful … Mostly

So, SpaceX launched their Falcon 1 rocket on March 20th. The Falcon 1 is a 2-stage, completely reusable rocket. On launch, the first stage worked flawlessly, getting the Falcon above the atmosphere. Unfortunately, The second stage was not able to completely get the Falcon 1’s payload into orbit.

SpaceX broadcasted the entire launch and flight via a live webcast. They had cameras mounted both at the launch platform, and on the rocket itself. When the first stage ran out of fuel, a pneumatic piston extended, kicking the second stage off the bottom of the rocket, and sending it hurtling back to Earth (a parachute allowed the first stage to fall back gracefully, and land in the ocean for recovery).

The second stage then lit up pushing the Falcon 1 even higher. Unfortunately, this is where the problems started. As the second stage started running low on fuel, the fuel began to slosh around inside the fuel tank. This caused the Falcon 1 to start rocking back and forth. This rocking got worse, and became a spin. Eventually, the motion was so bad that the fuel wasn’t going to the engine anymore … it was just bouncing around inside the fuel tank. At that point, the second stage engine died, and the Falcon 1 fell back to Earth, to be burned up in the atmosphere. It had gotten higher than the initial Space Shuttle orbit.

SpaceX considers this to be a successful launch: Other than the problem with gas bouncing around, everything else worked flawlessly. Their next launch will be their first commercial payload, in September. This will be the real test of their business model. While SpaceX has proven that they can get to space, the crux of their plan is that once the first and second stages of their rocket have fallen back to Earth, they can use them again. This isn’t a given — rockets are under enormous stress when they launch, and there is a good chance that they will be unusable after even 1 launch. However, if SpaceX is able to reuse their rockets as few as 4 or 5 times, there is a good chance that they can achieve their goal, which is to reduce launch costs by a factor of 10.

Read the official SpaceX report here.

Dell Listens to Customers — now will they take action?

The story of Dell and Linux is a long and complicated one. In the past, Dell has gone back and forth, for a brief time allowing you to purchase a computer without windows (presumably so you can install Linux on it at home), but mostly (and most recently) not.

Since being outpaced by HP in total sales, and knocked down from it’s #1 spot in new computer sales, Dell has launched IdeaStorm, a website where users can suggest ways for Dell to make money better cater to its customers. This is actually a great site. You can create suggestions, and then vote on which suggestions you think are the best. With over 50,000 people voting so far, Dell gets a pretty good idea of what people are interested in, and can tune their product line accordingly.

Now here is the most interesting part; 4 out of the the top 5 suggestions are to load Open Source software on shipping Dell computers:

  1. Provide a Linux Multiboot option
  2. Provide pre-installed Open Office
  3. Provide Linux Singleboot for laptops
  4. Ship with no OS
  5. Install Firefox as the default web browser

While this feedback does show how far Linux and other open source software has come in public awareness in the past few years, it should also come as a wakeup call to computer manufacturer: Try providing software to users that they actually want.

It’s worth noting that the next most-popular feedback Dell received is to stop pre-loading new computers with “crap-ware.” This is something that all current computer manufacturers are guilty of today, and if you’ve bought a new computer in the past few years you know what it means.

I don’t care how hip desktop search is in the media — I’ve never (not even once) had the need for Google Desktop. Nor for any other program that wants to run in my system tray, or add menubars to my web browsers. The only thing these programs do is slow down my [brand new] computer, so it’s slow even before I install anything.

Dell (et all), if I want to install RealPlayer — I will! Besides the fact that it provides no useful function, I do not buy a computer so that you can pre-sell it’s hard disk to software vendors.

In case you’re wondering, I don’t let the dealer put their stickers on my car when I buy one either.

There Are Some Things Money Can’t Buy: Innovation

Something too prevalent in the marketplace today is the complete lack of innovation which seems to plague some companies. On the one hand, you have companies like Apple and Nintendo which truly bring something new to the table; from product packaging to human-electronic interfaces. On the other hand, you have companies like Dell and Sony who just keep pushing out more of the same. Yet, the latter seem more likely to hold big press events and tout their “next big thing.” It seems as if they don’t even know that their products are “me too’s” instead of market leaders.

Keep in mind that there are some items for which a large number of similar products is okay. A perfect example is in USB flash storage. There are dozens of products available, and they’re all basically the same — about the same size, the same range of storage, roughly the same speed, and even the same price, give or take. Just about the only thing you can really choose with a USB flash drive today is the color. This sort of market is generally known as a “commodity.” If you think about it, you can buy [and sell] USB flash storage about as easily as you can buy and sell just about anything. The individual products are completely interchangeable (and undifferentiated).

Then there are near-commodity products. These are items which are commodities, but don’t necessarily have to be. The only thing preventing one product from “breaking out” of the pack is a lack of innovation. Look at USB hard drives. They’re nearly identical, except for capacity. One brand is as good as another. But what if one company decided to put a headphone jack on theirs, and let you listen to any MP3’s you had stored without needing a computer? What if one came with bluetooth support, or wi-fi? For an extra $30 or so, that would be a pretty cool product, and I’d be likely to buy it instead of a “plain” one. Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be many companies who make USB hard drives with any imagination. I’m not sure what their executive management meetings are like — probably something along the lines of “Hey, these things seem to sell well, let’s sell some.”

There will always be commodity items, and near-commodity items, and that’s a good thing. Its what drives prices down. But let’s talk about the breakaway hits. Like, say, the Apple iPod. The iPod is really good for a bunch of reasons. It plays your existing music and movies. It provides a store where you can buy movies, music, and tv shows easily. You don’t feel like the iTunes store is trying to trick you or deceive you in any way — if you buy something there, you can watch/listen to it on your devices. The iPod itself is nice — good quality, small, and light.

There are certainly a lot of other personal music players out there, but the iPod sells better than its competitors because it is a better product — it was the definition of innovation when it was first released, and it continued to add new features as it went along (like video). Now, along comes Microsoft looking to compete with the iPod. So, they decide to develop a product now known as the Zune. Up until its launch, Steve Balmer has touted the Zune as an iPod-killer. In other words, “better than an iPod.” In fact, Matt Jubelirer , the Microsoft project lead for Zune development, talked at length about how innovative the Zune was. Microsoft spend millions upon millions of dollars in advertizing, got retail stores to feature it, and raved about their online store, and how the face of personal music players will be changed forever.

Then the Zune was released. Without making any judgments on how good the Zune is or whether you should get one, it only had one feature that was new: wi-fi support. OK, that sounds innovative. I can imagine lots of cool things I might be able to do with my music player over wifi! Yet, the only thing you can actually do is share a “preview” of your music files to people in the area, which expires after 3 days or 3 plays. And, even though the Zune sports this single, although crippled innovation, there are a multitude of things which it doesn’t do, many of which even “me too” music players can: It won’t play your existing music, even if you bought it from Microsoft (!). It won’t let you subscribe to podcasts. It attaches DRM to your existing music. It’s bigger and heavier than most compareable music players. They have an online store which is difficult and confusing to use, with DRM rules which are not straightforward, and leave the user with the clear impression that they do not control the items they buy.

The strange part? After the Zune was released, Microsoft’s tune suddenly changed. Instead of touting how revolutionary and outstanding their new product was, Bill Gates was calling it a “modest competitor” to the iPod. So, did management really have no idea that their product wasn’t really anything special? Most probably, of course they did, but they were hoping that if they pushed it hard enough, they would be able to sell anyway. And probably, it did sell better than it would have if they didn’t push it so hard. However, the thing that really starts hurting the manufacturer is that the next time they release a product (like, Zune 2.0), no one is going to pay attention to their marketing, even if it really can do what it advertises.

Even though Microsoft seems to be aware of the problem, at least in theory, it hasn’t stopped them from releasing a long line of unremarkable products (any version of office or Windows, or the MSN search site, for example). So, why do things like this happen? Why do companies release “me too” products, when they themselves want to bring innovation as much (or probably more) than consumers want them to?

The real answer, of course, is complicated. Internal politics (Manager A wants Wi-Fi, but Manager B doesn’t. The compromise — Wi-fi goes in, but is limitted in scope). Counter-intuitive interests from business partners (Warner Music/RIAA, anyone?). Adversity to taking risks (“what if they don’t like it?”). Senior management who doesn’t understand the product or the target audience (cough, Steve Balmer).

The reality is that there are all some of the ungainly aspects of how big companies work — including at the “innovative” companies like Apple and Nintendo. The successful ones, however, are able to move past these issues, and focus on the one thing that differentiates them from their competition: What is it that the consumers want?