Hmm, that’s interesting…Our latest take on the IOT
One of my favorite duties in the lab is to keep track of the various internet-connected gadgets that pop up on crowdsourcing websites, trade shows, and around the Internet. These generally fall into two categories: “The world needs this” and “Hmmm. That’s… interesting.” (Quite often, the latter is our polite way of saying “that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of.” But we never want to be unkind…so we stick with “interesting.”)
We encountered a slew of new connected gadgets in 2015, from awe-inspiring to downright unsettling. Here are some of the head-scratching highlights of this year:
Hello Barbie, $75
Hexo+ Selfie Drone, $1,349
This one is equal parts cool, silly, and unsettling. Hexo+ is a camera-equipped drone that uses pattern-matching technology to follow a given target – think “selfie hovercraft.” The idea is, you can use the app to make the drone follow you at a given speed and distance as you’re shredding some singletrack. Or it can hover around you as you dangle off the face of a mountain. Or catch a wave. You get the idea. This way, you can document your outdoor prowess without bothering your friends to photograph you — or break your neck taking selfies. Other potential uses include investigating insurance fraud, stalking (eww), and following your child to the bus stop. The mind reels!
VVFly Intelligent Snore Stopper, $56
This ear-mounted device from Chinese company VVFly is designed to stop the wearer from snoring, in addition to tracking sleep time and quality. VVFly uses bone conductivity to tell when the wearer is snoring, and then discourages them from doing so with “soothing, gentle voice” in their ear that rouses them just enough to stop the racket. Which is theoretically better than the alternatives: “YOU’RE SNORING!”, or, the elbow treatment. Until they fall right back asleep, of course! We’ll stick with last year’s anti-snoring bed, or just our pointy elbows.
ICPooch Video Treat Dispenser ($100, plus mobile devices)
This device is a prime example of how a gadget can be equal parts brilliant and impractical, depending. The ICPooch treat dispenser was invented by 14-year-old Brooke Martin, and quickly blew past its fundraising goal on Kickstarter. ICPooch provides a two-way video stream between people and furry friends using the companion mobile app (you’ll need a tablet for your pet in addition to your own mobile device in order to do video). You can also dole out treats from afar, using a “drop cookie” button on the app. The dispenser itself connects to WiFi, so you can control it from the app even if the dog’s tablet gets buried in the backyard during your absence.
The concept has a lot of merit — it’s hard to be away from our pets, and ICPooch is a novel way to interact with our furry friends from afar. On the other hand, those of us with very food-motivated pets might think twice about having a fragile screen as the gatekeeper for the dog treats.
This smart garbage can, the brainchild of students at Newcastle University, is designed to analyze and improve trash and recycling habits in its users. Here’s how it works: You throw something away. A camera in the lid of the trash bin takes a photo of your trash. This photo is then sent via Amazon Mechanical Turk — a crowdsourcing marketplace that coordinates human intelligence for tasks that aren’t easily done by computer — to be analyzed by an actual human being (plausibly in a developing nation), to see how much of your trash could have been recycled or composted. While we fully support the mission, we can’t imagine many people paying to have their trash dissected by another person. Oh, and did we mention? BinCam uses Facebook as its platform, so you can easily share (or worry about your trash can accidentally sharing) photos of your garbage with your whole social network.
Um, yeah, no thanks.
Check back next time to see our favorite picks from the best of IoT file!
Refreshing the Stream
Now that Colorado’s epic Indian Summer is officially over, we’re into the season of long nights and TV marathons. And this year, there’s a treasure trove of new OTT content options and refreshed devices to choose sample. Here are some of the new arrivals you might want to check out as we hurtle toward the holiday shopping season:
Apple TV ($199)
Apple TV finally released new hardware this fall — for the first time since 2010 — sticking with a hardware design nearly identical to the last version.
The box is just a fraction of an inch taller, and they’ve given the remote control a refresh too, adding a landscape orientation for gaming. Like all the other devices in this list, the new Apple TV includes a voice search feature – here in the form of the beloved (and/or detested!) Siri.
Google also released an updated version of its popular Chromecast streaming player this Fall, with the same low price point as the original but with a very different design.
The new Chromecast is a complete circle that dangles from a flexible HDMI cable, making it easier to fit into tight HDMI ports. It comes in three color choices (red, black, and yellow) and has three WiFi antennas, for a more reliable connection (the original had but a single antenna).
The new Chromecast also includes a feature called “Fast Play,” which begins pre-buffering videos before you press the play button to cut down on loading times.
Roku 4 ($130)
Roku’s latest flagship device is capable of playing videos at 4K resolution, and also includes a few other features to help sweeten the deal — which is good, because many of us haven’t shelled out for Ultra HD TVs yet, and the 4K content selection is still pretty limited. Our favorite new Roku trick is the way it can page a lost remote control from the Roku 4 box – a big help in houses with dogs, kids, or greedy couches.
The OTT (over-the-top, or available without a pay TV subscription) content selection really took off this year, as did the selection of streaming content available to cable subscribers. HBO and Showtime are now both available as a la carte streaming services ($15 and $11/month, respectively) — a scenario that just three years ago seemed about as likely as a unicorn ride. Here are some other new updates to the streaming content scene:
Playstation Vue ($50/month)
Playstation Vue is a live streaming service that came out in March, but was only available on Playstation consoles . It finally announced expansion to new devices on November 12, starting with Amazon Fire TV devices and expanding to Chromecast in the “near future.” The base package is twice the price of Sling TV, and carries about twice as many channels.
Hulu’s “No Commercials” plan
Hulu started in 2008 with free, browser-only content supported by ads – and when Hulu Plus launched in 2010, it kept the commercials while other premium OTT services streamed ad-free. Hulu finally introduced a “No Commercials” plan, for $12/month, while keeping the $8 plan available for those of us who don’t mind a break in the action.
*There’s always a catch! Be sure to check out the fine print for a handful of shows that are not available commercial-free.
On October 28, YouTube launched its own ad-free streaming service called YouTube Red, for $10/month. Red gets rid of the commercials, and also allows subscribers to download videos for offline viewing. YouTube Red also includes a few features that are often requested by users, including the ability to play content in the background or with the screen turned off – making it easier to use YouTube as a music player, for example. And on that note, the YouTube Red subscription includes access to Google Music’s streaming catalog of 35 million songs (and vice versa, if you’re already a Google Music subscriber). Heads up, Netflix: Google is gunning for you (again!)
To be sure, OTT video has changed a lot (understatement) since we started the blog 4(!) years ago – and while we’re not seeing a lot of new entrants to the device or service categories these days, we’re still seeing plenty of improvements to the user experience. Stay tuned for more updates, including our annual roundup of brilliant and “oh, that’s… interesting” ideas from the Internet of Things.
Wearable Woes: Apple Watch as a Fitness Tracker
For the past year, we’ve been using various activity-tracking apps for iPhone to see how they interact with HealthKit, and to assess how well they actually work. Lots of fitness-oriented 3rd-party apps are out there, with great features: Argus runs in the background and turns my iPhone 5 into a pedometer, making it easy to obsess over getting 10,000 steps a day.
MapMyWalk includes “yard work” as an activity option, giving me a much better estimate of how many calzones I can eat after a grueling day in the dirt.
And Strava lets me compete with other cyclists for the best time on my favorite bike routes. Best of all, these 3rd-party apps can all automatically write data to Apple’s HealthKit ecosystem, giving me a big picture view of all my activity.
Naturally, I was excited to see how all of this would play out on the Apple Watch – instead of making sure I’m wearing something with pockets, or otherwise affixing my phone to my body, could I instead leave the phone in a patch of shade, and let the Apple Watch track my activity? Could I look at my watch and see how many steps I’ve taken using the Argus app? I assumed that would be the case.
Alas! We’re sorely disappointed. Here, in no particular order, are our gripes with the Apple Watch as a fitness tracker.
Differing accounts of activity
One issue we noticed almost immediately with the Apple Watch is that it doesn’t seem to get an accurate read on activity. I went for a quick spin around the neighborhood on my mountain bike with Strava running on my phone, while also logging an outdoor bike ride on the Watch’s native “Workout” app. For the sake of comparison, I also brought along my Garmin bike computer, which uses a combination of GPS, a wheel sensor, and a barometric altimeter. Trust but verify, right?
Garmin and Strava were in almost perfect agreement, clocking me at a little over 12 mph on average. The Apple Watch, on the other hand, recorded my average speed as 6.2 mph (barely fast enough to stay upright.) This may be due, in part, to the full two minutes I spent trying to end the workout on the Apple Watch. Did I mention the touchscreen is not very responsive? Or what a pain it is (not to mention dangerous) to try to jab at the watchface, while riding a bicycle?
The problem with 3rd-party apps on Apple Watch
Currently, 3rd-party apps like Argus and Strava can’t see the Apple Watch’s accelerometer, heart rate sensors, or other hardware features, like the “digital crown” (that’s the little knob that looks like it should wind the watch, but instead is used for navigation).
So for now at least, 3rd-party apps have to rely on the phone for their data, and the Watch is just a mirroring device.
Here’s what that looks like in practice: If I put down my phone and walk around, Argus can’t count my steps – only the Watch’s native Activity app does. But in Apple’s ecosystem, the number of steps isn’t visible on the watch itself — only in the Health app on the connected iPhone, and even then they’re not updated in real-time as they are with Argus.
The 3rd-party apps would be a lot more useful if their developers had full access to Apple’s Watch API (Application Programming Interface) before the watch started shipping.
However, developers are evidently getting access. On June 8th, Apple previewed the second edition of WatchOS , finally granting developers access to the various sensors embedded in the watch. The new OS will roll out sometime this fall, so don’t count on seeing better functionality in time for Century Season and summer hiking trips.
But we can hold out hope that someday the Apple Watch might play nicer with 3rd-party apps.
Apple’s apps take priority
For me, the most frustrating thing is that Apple Watch’s native apps automatically overwrite the data from other apps in HealthKit – so when I logged 200 calories burned during a 45-minute bike ride on Strava using my phone, and the Apple Watch calculated the ride as 0 minutes of activity and 53 calories, guess which version got recorded in the Health app? Same goes for that ride where the Watch cut my average speed in half, plus that full day of yard work that resulted in 0 active minutes.
This is not likely to go over well with anyone who cares enough to track their activity — let alone competitive athletes, for whom activity tracking can become a compulsion. (Just ask us.)
On the bright side, because the Apple Watch calculates motion while strapped to your wrist, it’s fairly easy to make up the difference while eating, drinking, or even sleeping (I wore the watch to bed one night and it didn’t track my sleep, but it did log 54 steps.)
In a nutshell
As a fitness device, the Apple Watch isn’t good for much more than reminding you to stand up and move around every once in a while. (Even when you’re driving, and using the watch for navigation!)
We sincerely hope that the Apple Watch will get better as 3rd-party developers finally get their hands on the tools they need to develop compelling apps for it.
As it stands currently, the Apple Watch still feels like a beta test and pales in comparison to other, less expensive activity trackers – and what’s worse, it completely throws a wrench into the HealthKit ecosystem by automatically overwriting the data from other apps.
Every time I attempt to track a workout on the Apple Watch, I can’t help but feel like Steve Jobs is rolling in his grave. But at least he’s getting activity points for it!
For part one of our Apple Watch series, click here.
Apple Watch First Impressions: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
We jumped on the bandwagon recently and ordered an Apple Watch for the lab. Here are our first impressions after a couple weeks with the device – check back for an in-depth review of the Watch’s potential as a fitness tracker, and also a medical device.
Useful in certain (indoor) settings
The Apple Watch uses Bluetooth 4.0 to communicate with the iPhone, which means you can only get about 30 feet away from your phone before losing the connection. This also means that using the Apple Watch will drain your phone battery before lunch. Taking the Apple Watch out for a day of hiking? Don’t forget your phone, and a portable charger (or two).
Things are a bit better at home, when the Apple Watch can use a known WiFi network to improve its range slightly. This means that when your phone connects automatically to your home WiFi network, it can send signals to the Apple Watch over that network instead of Bluetooth. For practical purposes, this means I can leave my phone charging in the house while I’m out tending the garden; as long as I stay within WiFi range I can take calls from my watch.
Perhaps the most useful thing about the Apple Watch is that it can page your missing phone (as long as it’s within Bluetooth range). Of course, it’s just as easy to do this from any Apple device using “Find my iPhone,” so it probably doesn’t justify dropping $500 on a watch for that feature alone.
Too tethered to the iPhone; not really useful as a timepiece
The Watch has little functionality when the phone is out of range, or locked. All too often I look at my wrist to see this:
As a timepiece, the Apple Watch is hardly useful, because the screen goes black after a few seconds. There’s no discreetly checking the time during that meeting that you didn’t think was going to go so long on an Apple Watch – it requires an almost dramatic twist of the wrist (and sometimes a poke with the other hand) to wake up the screen.
Twice the alerts
While it’s handy to be able to answer calls on the watch when your phone is out of reach, I found it incredibly stressful to have two devices ringing whenever a call came in. And I started wondering: Are we really without our phones often enough to justify such a cacophony of alerts every time? I can only imagine how this will play out in office buildings and movie theaters.
Too many noises; not enough context
For me, the defining moment with the Apple Watch came shortly after I strapped it on my wrist and headed down the interstate. I started navigation from my phone, and the Watch picked it up and started making turn signal noises every time I approached a turn. The layering of sound effects over my own turn signal, coupled with the verbal directions on my phone, was irritating to say the least — and even though the Watch displayed the next turn on its screen, the small size made it difficult to see while driving.
And then, it got worse. While hurtling down I-25 at 75 mph, I felt a buzz on my wrist and glanced at the watch:
Maybe I expected too much from the Apple Watch, but I think a device that a) is giving me directions down the freeway and b) contains an accelerometer, ought to know better than to cheerfully remind me to stand up at that particular moment.
Next time: Apple Watch as a Fitness Tracker
We’ll need to devote a whole other post to this topic, because let’s face it – there are a lot of problems here, and snark can be fun. With all the excitement about HealthKit and the Apple Watch, we hoped for a device that would seamlessly measure and record data from all our activities.
This isn’t that device. Instead, the Watch is basically a glorified pedometer that won’t register a 10 mile bike ride as exercise, but will award me fitness points for an hour of drinking wine. Stay tuned!
Streaming Stick Showdown: How Different Dongles Measure Up
Google Chromecast, $35
Features we love:
Chromecast’s small form factor and low price created a big ruckus when it launched back in the fall of 2013, even though the content selection was pretty much limited to YouTube and Netflix at that time.
But because it’s relatively easy to add “Cast” support to most iOS and Android apps, the Chromecast library continues to expand quickly and now most of the major video apps are represented – including HBO Go, Showtime Anytime, and Hulu Plus, in addition to YouTube and Netflix.
We also like the experience of browsing for content on our mobile devices, versus scrolling through titles on a big screen – to a certain point. Which brings us to the next section.
Things we’d change:
The thing that we find most compelling about Chromecast is also the thing that drives us nuts: No physical remote. Initially we found the simplicity charming – just a device that catches whatever streams you throw at it from your phone or tablet.
But the lack of remote really backfires when pausing involves fumbling for a smartphone, closing the email you were typing, etc. Back in September I was still quite enamored with the Chromecast. But I got increasingly frustrated as I battled frequent connection issues that caused the transport controls (rewind, pause, etc.) to stop working.
Fortunately, a recent Chromecast update largely resolved this issue, by allowing Chromecast to accept signals from most TV remotes. This uses the same CEC (Consumer Electronics Control) function that allows you to power on your TV and control the volume using Chromecast, only in reverse. It worked like a charm on my Samsung Smart TV, but may not work with all TV models.
As of today, this feature works with almost all the Chromecast-compatible apps – with the big exception of Netflix. No word on when that update will drop (Netflix is often a little slower to build new Chromecast features into its apps), but by incorporating a remote without adding another one to our pile, Chromecast is back in our good graces.
Roku Streaming Stick, $45
Features we love:
Roku is always near the top of nearly every streaming device roundup we’ve posted over the years, mainly because it has the widest variety of content. It still does, and tends to be on the forefront whenever a new app is released.
We also like Roku’s universal search feature, which ties together all the major content sources so that you can search in a single interface.
Things we’d change:
With all its good features, it hurts us to say that the Roku Streaming Stick falls a bit short. It packs considerably less power than the Roku 3 or the Fire TV. Where Roku 3’s WiFi remote is responsive to every button press, the Streaming Stick lags and seems to have difficulty getting signals from the remote (also WiFi) when plugged in to the back of the TV.
Last Spring, we wrote about the Streaming Stick’s issues with DIAL – the process of casting content from Netflix or YouTube to the TV was buggy, and often didn’t work reliably. This is still largely the case, but it’s true for Chromecast too.
Roku is certainly the winner in terms of sheer content, but that might be a dubious honor. Sometimes all that content can be overwhelming, as is definitely the case when I look at all the free niche channels in Roku’s channel store.
Amazon Fire TV Stick, $39
Back in December, Amazon started offering Fire TV in dongle form. It sports a dual-core processor instead of the quad-core found on the larger Fire TV, but we didn’t notice much of a difference. Content between the two devices is the same, other than the $99 version having access to a larger selection of games (probably where that quad-core processor comes in handy.)
Features we love:
Amazon’s Fire TV devices support a bunch of different video services, but do a particularly excellent job of highlighting Amazon’s own video selection (both Prime and additional content to rent or buy.) If you mainly watch Amazon Prime, you’ll enjoy this feature. The Prime content also includes metadata from IMDB, making it easy to browse for other titles that include the same actors or director.
Like Chromecast and the Roku Streaming Stick, Fire TV also allows you to “Cast” content from your phone or tablet – and if you have a premium subscription to Spotify, Fire TV lets you control the music with your phone via Spotify Connect (a feature that is sorely lacking on Chromecast and Roku).
Like all Amazon devices, installation was a breeze. The Fire TV showed up pre-authenticated to the account it was purchased from — you’ll still have to sign in to Netflix, Showtime, and the other services on the box, but you can start watching video right out of the box.
And like Roku, Amazon also offers a (nearly) universal search feature. You can search across Amazon and other services like Showtime and Hulu Plus – just not Netflix. Which brings us to the next section:
Things we’d change:
If you like to get your content from multiple sources, the Amazon-focused UI on the Fire TV can be a bit over-the-top (see what I did there?). Most of the screen space is devoted to layers upon layers of Amazon content, with the other services jammed into a single row.
Netflix titles are conspicuously absent both from the search feature and the IMDB recommendations, which is annoying, if somewhat understandable. Sure, Amazon would probably prefer that I pay $2.99 for an episode of Mad Men instead of watching it on Netflix at no extra charge – but I wouldn’t.
Also worth considering, if you’re a premium cable subscriber in the market for a new streaming device: While all three devices have apps for HBO Go and Showtime Anytime, not all of them will let you sign in. If you’re a Comcast or Charter subscriber, you won’t be able to watch Showtime or HBO on your Fire TV until they strike a deal – and in the case of Roku, that process took years.
So which dongle is our favorite?
We get this question a lot, but it’s never an easy one to answer. The Fire TV stick is currently getting the most screen time in my farm lab, and at the lab-lab, and at Leslie’s house – but the Roku Streaming Stick still has a solid content selection. Chromecast was falling short, but controlling it with the TV remote is a game-changer. One thing we know for sure is that these services and devices can look very different in a year, or a few months. Stay tuned for our next update.
Spring Streaming Update: 2015
As the first tulips of spring poke their way through the snow, we’re looking back at some of the recent developments in the world of OTT video. And despite a brief lull in the action, we’re once again seeing new services pop up, just as others vanish. So without further ado, here’s our Spring Streaming Update for 2015:
Shuttered Services: Samsung Video Hub, Redbox Instant, and Target Ticket
The shutdown started with Samsung, which closed down its Video Hub on August 1, 2014. Video Hub streamed only to Samsung smart TVs and mobile devices, and allowed users to purchase and rent movies and TV episodes.
A few months later, on October 7th, Redbox Instant closed its doors. The service, a joint venture between Verizon and Redbox (part of Outerwall), bundled unlimited streaming video with Blu-ray and DVD rentals from Redbox kiosks. But Redbox Instant failed to gain traction with customers, in part because it was slow to roll out to new devices and the streaming catalog looked an awful lot like Netflix, only with fewer titles.
Target Ticket soon followed suit, with the retailer announcing it will cut off the transactional streaming service on March 7th. Target’s service didn’t offer any unlimited streaming – like Walmart’s VUDU, it offered streaming titles to rent or buy only. But with the exception of parental guidance ratings from Common Sense Media, there wasn’t much to differentiate Target Ticket from its more established competitors.
For customers who purchased video from these services, you should still be able to access your content — but it may be a tricky process. Redbox Instant and Video Hub are making subscribers’ video purchases and credits available via M-GO, and Target Ticket will be sending its customers to CinemaNow (the streaming venture that Best Buy picked up back in 2010).
At best, customers will need to sign up with another service just to get access to the titles they already own. But different services often have different agreements with studios, so there are no guarantees that every title you purchased through a cancelled service will be available through its replacement.
The End for UltraViolet?
On a somewhat related note, we’ve been hearing rumblings for months now that the UltraViolet initiative may be winding down. When we wrote about UltraViolet nearly three years ago, the service – which acts as a “digital locker” to let you access copies of movies you purchase – had buy-in from all the major studios except Disney and MGM. Instead of joining UltraViolet, Disney introduced a competing service called Disney Movies Anywhere back in February 2014, and now UltraViolet’s studio partners are reportedly in talks about joining forces with Disney.
But at least as of last December, UltraViolet was optimistic, adding new studio partners and anticipating new growth as it expanded to more countries. It’ll be interesting to see how the spin shakes out on this one…
New OTT Streaming Service: Sling TV
And finally, lest you think this post is all about services closing their doors, we do have a new addition in the form of Sling TV – a new web TV service from Dish Network, which launched to the public February 9th. Back in 2012, Dish partnered with Sling Media, makers of the Slingbox, to bring out-of-home streaming to the set-top boxes known as “The Hopper.”
The new Sling TV service is delivered purely OTT, with live TV and VOD from a lineup of about 15 cable networks for $20/month (with more being added, including AMC last week). We’ve been testing out the new service and will be back shortly with an in-depth review. Stay tuned!
Software, Sandboxes, and the Back Office
Sandbox. Another everyday noun stepping out in different stripes, especially amongst Software People.
Here it is as a verb, from a recent batch of notes: “When you’re sandboxing, you’re allowing people to fail without killing anything.”
And as an adjective: “It’s more of a sandbox-y thing than a bag of tools.”
On the surface, the notion of a “software sandbox” is perhaps obvious. It’s a place where developers can try out their code, using the same raw resources as a production environment, but without causing anything in production to break.
Why the sandbox is of increasing importance in broadband technology circles is perhaps less obvious. To get the head around it, point toward open source software, as a staple in the transition to all-IP (Internet Protocol) everything.
Let’s say we all agree that a) it’s a software world anymore. And that b) next-gen competitors who grew up on broadband just move faster. Lastly, that OTT competitors move faster, in part because they live on open source software, and make it easy for developers to try stuff out.
In other words, they sandbox.
Let’s further say we agree with the one about “if you can’t beat’em, join’em.”
So far, in the realm of what we used to call “cable,” most sandboxing happens at the interactions of “old” and “new,” also known as “now” and “next,” and especially with back office stuff. For instance, maybe you want to experiment with how people navigate video. One option: Build some kind of software-based emulator, so that developers can work within a semi-real environment.
Another option: Create a sandbox that links developers into the live elements of the back office that really do link to video navigation — the billing system, the conditional access/encryption components, the provisioning experience, as three of several examples. Developers can develop away, without damaging anything happening live, in the back office.
As for whether the software sandbox ever encounters gifts akin to what cats leave in sandboxes? In practice, developers usually get their own sandboxes, electronically cordoned off from anybody else writing code. Which is good, because there’s not any actual sand.
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
The World of OpenStack
OpenStack. In computing, and especially distributed computing, it’s a staple, in conversation and in workflow. People tend to elevator-pitch it as “an open operating system for the cloud,” “Linux on steroids,” and “a framework based around open source software.”
As one software aficionado put it: “It’s a bunch of scripts (translation: instructions) that help create clouds and virtual machines to deploy file systems and storage and a bunch of other stuff.”
Getting clearer? Here’s more. It started in July of 2010 as a collaborative project between NASA and Rackspace, with a goal of making it easier to use regular, off-the-shelf computing hardware to handle public and private cloud activities.
Last month, Time Warner Cable posted a tech blog titled “One Year Later: Setting Up OpenStack at TWC,” penned by its lead “stacker,” Matt Haines (real title: VP, Cloud Engineering and Ops.) In it, he describes how his agile team “designed and deployed an enterprise-grade cloud,” using OpenStack, in its two national data centers.
Comcast began its OpenStack cloud work three years ago, in 2012, to support its X1 rollout — navigation first, then apps, and now video (it’s what’s behind “cloud DVR.”)
Both providers settled on OpenStack as an alternative to buying proprietary set-tops, control components, and servers from the same company. Troubleshooting gets easier, they submit. Rolling out new services, features and bug-fixes gets (way, way) faster.
It’s worth pointing out here that the long-held industrial fears about open anything are rapidly melting away. No longer are concerns about mad coders “doing harm to the network” a definitive reason to not take an open source route.
More, the tech mantra today is one of “disrupt, or be disrupted.”
The vendor community, always in a weird spot when their customers decide to lean toward “build” vs. “buy,” is following suit. Cisco, during the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show, heavily emphasized its investment in, and development of, Openstack-based components for multichannel video providers.
It follows that OpenStack is behind all the tech talk about “transparency,” and the tales about how this-or-that was about to go kaflooey, but because they had visibility into the software (which always comes in “stacks”), they fixed it (in hours, not months), averting disaster. Anecdotes like this abound in OpenStack speak.
Everything about OpenStack is open, even how papers are vetted for its annual conferences, which attract around 5,000 attendees, twice a year, for five days. (The “stackers” met in Atlanta and Paris last year.) For the Paris confab, in November, 1,100 papers were submitted for consideration (by contrast, cable’s tech events typically attract around 300 papers, vetted by committee.) The entire OpenStack community voted on who spoke.
As “open” stuff goes, OpenStack is decidedly one to know. They meet again in Vancouver, from May 18-22; on any given day, regional groups host meet-ups all over the world. Time to get your stack on.
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.
Sandy Howe, Wonder Woman 2015
Sandy Howe, Senior VP of Global Marketing for Arris and honoree in the 2015 class of Multichannel News Wonder Women, owns the “flawless follow-up” as her strongest Super Power.
So say her customers and colleagues around the industry, recounting tale after tale of something gone awry, and how Howe’s trademark blend of empathy and tenacity got it resolved.
“She has this impeccable follow up,” said Nomi Bergman, President of Bright House Networks. “She’s 100% on the mark with it, every time.”
“Tenacity and determination are two of the qualities for which Sandy is best known,” said Bob Stanzione, Chairman and CEO of Arris. “With over 20 years of experience in optical, routing and switching product development, she’s played an important role in some of the largest U.S. cable deployments.”
“Sandy Howe is among the very best account representatives I have ever dealt with, and I’ve worked with many,” said Kevin Leddy, Executive VP of Technology Policy and Product Development for Time Warner Cable. “She does her homework and often understands our company better than we do — her follow up is exceptional.”
And, her colleagues noted, it’s easier to see a person’s true colors in times of distress than when everything’s working fine — like the time when an equipment malfunction bricked a large number of in-home devices she’d sold to a major customer. Howe saw the problem through, doggedly connecting answers with questions, until everything was fixed, and everyone satisfied.
“Her genuine interest in her customers is what really resonates,” said Joe Quane, who hired Howe into then-Scientific-Atlanta, in 1999. “It’s her effervescent personality and genuine enthusiasm.”
Howe grew up near the “happy valley” that is State College, Pa., graduating from Penn State in 1994 with a B.S. in Education. After a career fair landed her the job offer in what she thought was her vocation of choice — fashion merchandising — she came to the depressing conclusion that it wasn’t for her after all.
“I was devastated and I called my dad — what am I going to do?” Howe recalls. “He said, ‘go into technical sales and know it better than any man in the room.’”
To get sales experience, she landed a job at American Greeting Cards, with a company car and 35 direct reports.
Serendipitously, a small tech startup – Broadband Networks Inc. (BNI), a maker of the opto-electronics used in cable’s hybrid-fiber coax architectures — occupied the duplex upstairs. Soon enough, Howe, at 22, was offered a job in national technical sales.
“I called home, and this time my mom answered,” Howe said. “I said, I have this offer from this tiny tech company, should I do it?’ She said, ‘are you crazy? It’s technical sales, get it on your resume.’”
Five years later, after BNI was purchased, Howe started planning her next move. “I’d been reading about General Instrument and Scientific Atlanta in Multichannel News and thought, now’s the time to work at a big company.” In 1999, she joined S-A as an account manager to oversee the digital services launch at Time Warner Cable, for its Carolinas territory.
She immediately made an impact, Quane noted, converting what at the time was “100% Pioneer” set-top box territory over to S-A. From there, she rose quickly, ascending over the next decade to Director of the company’s Business Development team.
In 2009, Howe joined Arris as Senior VP of Strategic Market Development. Her background in sales, buttressed by a loyal customer base, made it an easy shift. “I believe I understand better than most just what it’s like out there, and what tools salespeople need to be successful,” Howe explains.
Her sizable fan base agrees. “I remember when Sandy went to Arris, how happy I was for her — and for Suddenlink,” said Terry Cordova, its CTO. “We now had an insider who, when needed, would ‘jump in front of the charging bull’ for us, to rectify any issues.”
“Other suppliers could learn a lot from Sandy,” added Time Warner Cable’s Leddy.
Last year, Howe shouldered a fresh set of challenges, as newly minted Senior VP of Global Marketing for the manufacturer. By August, she’d turned a corporate desire for consumer brand recognition into an Arris sponsorship of NASCAR racer Carl Edwards, and NASCAR’s first Mexican driver, Daniel Suarez. “The project plan has over 200 items,” she explained, including photo shoots, events, branding 1500 items, and merchandising.
Beyond her day job, Howe is a deeply committed industry volunteer, “especially when it comes to diversity and inclusion.” She serves in several WICT chapters and on the national WICT board, and participates in countless chapter and national events for the SCTE.
“I’ve had the pleasure of working within the orbit of Sandy Howe for the past two decades,” said Sean Bratches, EVP of Sales and Marketing for ESPN. “She gives her time and her expertise willingly, and we are all better for it.”
When she’s not leading the marketing team at Arris, Howe is either sailing or relaxing on the beach in Wilmington, N.C. with husband Peter, whom she met during a pickup beach volleyball game in 2002. “You can find me almost every Saturday at 5 p.m. for cocktails at the beach house,” she laughs.
Which makes her personal credo all the more apt: “A pessimist expects the wind not to change; an optimist thinks the wind will change — but a realist adjusts the sails.”
This profile originally appeared in the Wonder Woman Class of 2015 Special Feature of Multichannel News.
The World of webRTC
Here’s a way to let the imagination run wild: Think about your stuff that’s equipped with a web browser.
Now imagine being able to talk to people, using that stuff.
That’s the allure of webRTC, where the “RTC” stands for “real time communications.” It’s a technology that grew out of the World Wide Web consortium (which goes by “W3C”) to support browser-to-browser applications, like voice and video calling, with no need to download anything. Click to communicate.
We’ve already seen people talking into their smart watches. We’ll see many more such Dick Tracy maneuvers when Apple’s smartwatch emerges, in March. (Overheard during the recent Consumer Electronics Show were whispered demo comments like “I don’t think your watch heard you.”)
Also at CES, AT&T became the first American carrier to announce an API (Application Program Interface) for its webRTC plans. Why would a developer want to write code for AT&T, vs. for any garden-variety browser that can do it? Presumably to be able to call to the numbers within the public switched telephone network (PSTN) — in other words, the traditional “black phones” connected to the original wired phone network.
Last week, the browser Firefox announced “Hello,” a plug-in that, once plugged in, enables webRTC-based calling. Also last week, up in Canada, ECN Capital launched an online investment program for private markets, based on webRTC.
Last year, at The Cable Show, Comcast showed a way to “live stream” video from wherever you are, to other Xfinity customers. You’re at the wedding, but Gramma couldn’t go, so you hold up your phone and stream it to her big screen. They called it “Share.” It, too, is anchored in webRTC.
Use cases show up everywhere: You’re browsing places on AirBnB. The host happens to be home, and amenable to “showing you around,” live, with video.
You’re on a customer care call, at your desk. You need to leave. Switch the call to your phone, tablet, watch — that’s webRTC.
As of now, there’s not a straight line between webRTC and the Internet of Things — the IOT is a sensor story, now. But the browser can’t be far behind. And when that happens, so opens a whole new way to call people, with your voice or your whole face, from whatever the device is.
So far, I can’t quite imagine taking a call from the fridge. But years ago, when digital was just starting, I used to say that anything that helps people to communicate better, is a winner. At the time, I used the example of being able to “talk” with my nieces about a particular live TV show — even though they live far away.
This is that. And like everything else based on IP (Internet Protocol), webRTC is coming. Whether you choose to use it is up to you.
This column originally appeared in the Platforms section of Multichannel News.