Friday, December 29, 2006

Web 2.0 Mashups are so yesterday

While everyone and their sister is trying to come up with code mashups (i.e. plot your flickr pictures on Google Maps), a guy named Chris Hughes (see the accompanying video), has found a way to use a Nintendo Wii remotes motion sensing capabilities to control his Roomba. This is such a great concept. 20 years ago, even our phones were closed boxes, now everyone can be their own hacker. Don't like your alarm clock? Want to use your cell phone to shut your lights on and off. And if you don't want to go onto the Internet, you could just as easily buy books on these subjects in your local bookstore.

Kudos to you Chris Hughes, and all of the other people out there who don't ask why, but why not.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The second end of the VoIP Candle

As Murphy's law dictates, a newer better technology will come along the day after you bought the latest and greatest technology, rendering it obsolete. Just the other day, I blogged about SkypeOut and my new Skype phone, and today I discovered that T-Mobile has rolled out its Hotspot@Home service. Essentially, for an extra $20/month on top of your T-Mobile bill you get a phone that can connect to either a wi-fi network (your home or any other public wi-fi network) or to the cellular network. When on Wi-Fi calling is free anywhere in the US and unlimited. It can also supposedly switch over seemlessly from Wi-Fi to cellular networks and back again.

Of course, I am trying to see the real benefit in this? I guess this works if you have broadband at home but bad cellular coverage, or if you talk a lot in proximity to wi-fi networks and the $20 unlimited will provide you with cost savings. It goes without saying that if I am in a Foreign country and I can get my US phone to ring without having to pay international roaming, this would be tremendously beneficial.

But all that aside, the concept of UMA (Unlicensed Mobile Access), and T-Mobile's launch of it, shows that the VoIP candle is being burned on both ends. On one side you have startups like Skype and Vonage that are trying to bridge VoIP to traditional phone networks using PSTN access points, and on the other you have cellular carriers looking to roam seamlessly between their Cellular and Wi-Fi networks.

A couple of years ago I made a prediction that in 3-5 years everything will be running off a giant IP-based platform. At least one of my predictions is coming slowly to fruition

Friday, December 22, 2006

Trying to have some fun with Google Maps

Back in the day, in the B.C. (before children) era, I used to code for fun. To some of you the very notion of coding in general sounds bizarre in and of itself, yet alone as something that someone might enjoy.

On Thanksgiving, something cool happened - I was showing some family members aerial photos of my in-laws new place down in Florida using Google Maps. Everyone was impressed with the levels of detail, down to the pictures of my in-laws backyard. Upon seeing all of this, my Grandma asked if they had the same maps and pictures for Europe. I wasn't sure, but we put in the address of her childhood home in the Alsatian city of Saarbrucken. Sure enough, she was able to zoom in down into her old neighborhood, and all of the childhood memories of street names came echoing back.

It was than and there that I started thinking that there was a lot more to maps than simple driving directions and traffic reports. People are developing mash-ups with Google maps of all kinds, but those mash-ups, for the most part, so far, seem to be primarily 'kick the tires' products. i.e. Flickr photos on the map, or a topographical view of our contacts. But GIS (Geographic Information Systems) have hundreds of other purposes that have yet to be invented. One good example, law enforcement. The NYPD and other law enforcement agencies have use GIS for years now to help map geographic crime patterns and help solve crimes as well as investigate and discover environmental factors that lead to more crime.

I have started reading the maps API docs from Google, and I am thinking about ways to create a fun, but practical GIS tool. Any suggestions?

Thursday, December 21, 2006

My Review of the iPhone (uh... the Linksys CIT 300)

I know what you're thinking, but unfortunately I do not have the 'Inside Scoop from Infinite Loop'. I do however enjoy the many benefits of VoIP. While I have been using Skype for a while, I never quite viewed it as a true VoIP phone, in the vane of VoIP providers like Vonage, OptimumVoice, and Broadvoice who actually provide me with something akin to a traditional phone experience. Skype was too IM-like for me to consider using. But then the lovely folks at Skype offered free calling to any phone in the US and Canada for free to the end of 2006. Since my phone calls at work are metered (we are only allowed a certain amount of long distance calls for non-business use per month), I starte using Skype to make long distance calls via the PC. And while it wasn't perfect, I was definitely impressed with the call clarity, and its ease of use. Although I didn't use them, Skype also had dirt-cheap rates for international calling.

Still, as impressed as I was, I didn't look to skype as a full-time replacement for my VoIP phone - that is until last week. Last week Skype upped the ante in the VoIP wars - it began offering a full year of unlimited calls to the US and Canada for $29.95 (only $14.95 if you sign up before 12/31/06). In essence, Skype's annual rate is what its competitors charge monthly! While I was very intrigued by this, I knew that I couldn't sell skype to my wife without having a 'real' phone to call on. Since our VoIP phones offer low international rates, we actually use that as the only source to keep up with family and friends overseas.

Thankfully, I discovered the CIT 300 - one of new Linksys's new iPhones (touche Apple!) that connects to your PC and landline (i.e. it's a two-line phone) so that you can choose to make calls either from Skype or your home phone. I also discovered that with a $10 Linksys Rebate and Google Checkout's $20 discount, I was able to get this phone for $50 (a lot cheaper than the current Wi-Fi skype phones which run about $150 on the street).

So I bought the CIT 300, and have since installed it half-way (I don't have an available landline near my PC) and here are some of my impressions so far:

For starters, the phone has several large drawbacks. First and formost, this phone is just like all of the other USB phones that one can use for Skype in that it requires you to interact with the existing Skype application to work. This means that your computer will always need to be turned on with Skype running and you being logged in. Essentially, the Skype phone is set up so that all of your audio for Skype calls is routed through the phone. This means that if you don't have the phone handy (or if someone else is using it for a landline call), you won't be able to answer a skype call with your PC. In addition, there is no way (that I have discovered yet) to make a call directly from your PC without dialing it from the handset. So if you are sitting at the computer and want to call someone, you need to initiate it from the phone first, or change your Audio settings.

Another inherent issue with Skype is that it allows you to log in from multiple places at once. If someone tries to call you on Skype, and you are logged in at Work and at home, it will ring in both places, but whoever picks up first, wins. So if your CIT 300 is at home, and someone answers it while you are waiting for a work call, you won't be able to pick it up. It can also be annoying to have the phone ring at home even if they know not to pick up.

2 other pet peeves of mine about this phone - to dial a landline using Skype, you need to either prefix your number with 001 or a + sign, otherwise it won't go through. In addition, there is no way to bridge the gap between the landline and Skype - so if you want to make a three way call, you will need to do it with SkypeOut and not the landlines.

Quirks aside, this is a good phone. All of my skype contacts come through to the handset for speed dialing (both Skype contacts and landlines that I have added to Skype as SkypeOut contacts), and the speaker phone is great. Call Quality is as good as your skype quality - i.e. it's not the phone's fault, and the backlit keys make it easy to dial in the dark.

All told, this phone is a decent option if you want to use Skype for VoIP, but if you can afford it, you will get a little more flexibility with a Wi-Fi skype phone or Linksys' CIT-400 iPhone (which has skype built-in, and doesn't require your computer to be on to work).

One more note, it seems that these Linksys phones allow for multiple handsets, but I have yet to find where they offer an individual handset for sale. However, since they just released some new products in the 'iPhone' line, it could be that those are not too far away.