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Technology

The Internet of Things Today

Image representing Electric Imp as depicted in...
Image via CrunchBase

I’ve written a number of blogs about the future potential for the Internet of Things. But there are a number of devices on the market now that make the first steps of the IoT a reality today. I look at these devices and the approaches they are taking to the word of connected things to be the precursor to where we are headed over the next few decades.

SmartThings SmartThings are selling a box of smart sensors that you can use for functions today like home security and energy management. But they also provide a developer kit for those who want to program custom applications and there is a huge range of possible functions for the system. One would thing that soon that custom apps will begin appearing on the web allowing you to do cool things without having to be a coder.

MobiPlug. Mobiplug is a start-up that promises to be able to integrate all of your wireless devices regardless of the platform or wireless protocol used. It’s most unique feature is that it makes your smart phone the hub device. Most other platforms supply a separate box as a hub and I am just picturing a closet full of old hubs one day in the same way that I gathered a pile if WiFi routers. Most IoT systems allow your smart phone to control settings, so why not just make it the hub too?

FitBit.  By now you have probably seen your Facebook friends with the annoying posts showing how fast and where they ran today, brought to you by FitBit. But FitBit has it in their sights to become a lot more than just a training aid and monitor and they are hoping to evolve their system into everything fitness and health related in your life. FitBit is already storing data on you that can become the future basis for a heath monitoring system.

AllJoyn. AllJoyn is not a device, but rather a platform of software being created by Qualcomm. They are taking a very different approach to the IoT and developing a platform that will work independently of the Internet. This has some basic merit in that many of the other platforms store at least some of the central core in the cloud and be non-functional during an Internet outage. But it also is a bold step in separating our IoT data from the general internet for privacy reasons. Do you really want your medical monitor data or security system to be hackable?

Evrythng. This company is looking at a totally different aspect of the IoT, in how you interact with your devices and with the outside world. Evrythng is a software platform that will let you more dynamically interface with your IoT devices in a Facebook-type of platform. However, one aspect of this system is that your devices can ‘suggest’ additional purchases to you and this platform brings advertising into your life and your smart fridge might be suggesting what you should purchase to create a recipe with what you already have stored inside.

Electric Imp. And let us not forget the geeks among us who want a fully customized IoT. Electric Imp has developed a SD Card-sized WiFi node that can then be used with any device. A user can program it to do anything they wish. And the cards are swappable because the programming is stored in the cloud. Think of this as the never-ending coding party that lets you program your toaster to perform amazing feats.

Freescale.  This is still under development, but Freescale is looking at swallowable monitors for inside of the body. Nobody is entirely sure yet just what this is going to be looking at, but the guess is that this will be partnered with some other system such as FitBit as additional health monitors. Probably one of the most promising long-term use of the IoT is in-blood monitors that will head you off from being sick from the first signs of an infection and stopping pre-cancerous cells before they get started. This technology has to start somewhere and hopefully this is the first step.

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Technology The Industry

Primer on Internet Cookies

Am I a brownie? Am I a cookie? I’m so conflicted! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I spent some time recently educating myself on how Internet cookies work and thought I would share what I learned. I think that most people assume that cookies are largely malicious and that is not necessarily the case. But there are certainly types of malware on the Internet that can do every bad thing to you that you can imagine.

Plain cookies by themselves are pretty simple. People think of cookies as programs that are put on to your computer to spy on you. But cookies are nothing like that. A good definition of a cookie is a piece of text that a server puts onto a computer. For example, a cookie allows a web site to store something on your computer that it can retrieve later if you come back to the same web site.

Basic cookies perform a number of simple tasks that make your web browsing experience more enjoyable. For example, a cookie might record your preferences for a given website so that it doesn’t have to ask you about yourself every time you visit. A good example is when you visit a weather site and it gives you the weather for your zip code. Having a cookie from that site stops you from having to type in your zip code every time you want to check the weather. And if you want to track the weather in a dozen locations it will remember all of them.

The basic tool used by cookies is referred to as a name value pairs. Most cookies from website assign you a user ID and that is the first half of the name value pair. This lets them know who you are (actually, only which computer you are on) no matter how many times you come back to the site. The second half of the name value pair is then whatever data they want to store on your machine to prepare for your next visit, such as the zip code for the weather website.

If you have ever deleted all of the cookies from your computer you know the hassle you have after that. All of a sudden the web pages for your bank, credit cards, music site, games, and whatever else you routinely use don’t know who you are any more. Those sites were probably using cookies in the basic value pair mode, using them only to store your preferences.

You have the ability to control these kinds of cookies if you want. There is a setting in most web browsers that will allow you to get notified and make a choice every time a web site asks for a pair value from you. Try this and you will quickly abandon it because it will slow your web browsing to a crawl.

Of course, basic cookies can create annoyance at the user level. For example, my wife and I share a computer sometimes and I don’t really want to log automatically onto her Facebook or Amazon page. In fact, one day I bought a Kindle book without noticing it was her account and the book downloaded to her Kindle instead of mine. And I use multiple computers and thus I often get a different experience from a given web site based upon which computer I am using.

So why the big controversy over cookies? Unfortunately there are now companies that take cookies to the next level, and these are the ones that bother people. For example, DoubleClick is used by a lot of web shopping sites and it allows your user ID and data to be used across multiple web sites. If you buy something on the web you obviously have to tell whoever you are buying from all about you – your name, address, credit card number etc. But with cookies that can create an identify across multiple we sites the companies you buy from can start putting together profiles about you and they can see all of the different sites you are visiting that are within the DoubleClick universe. And this is all done without you knowing it.

And of course, there are all sorts of malware on the Internet that do all of the bad things that people associate with cookies. There are all sorts of adware, sneakware, keyloggers, browser hijackers, trojan horses and worms that gather all sorts of information about you. But basic cookies are not a threat to you. A cookie is a data file and it cannot gather other information on your computer. That requires one of the forms of malware. However, cookies that share information across multiple web sites can gather a lot more information about you than you might want to share. It’s a tricky world on the Internet and it’s really easy for people to forget that somebody else is at the other end of every keystroke you make.

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Improving Your Business Technology The Industry

Are You Collaborating?

I am not talking about World War II movies and I hope none of you have decided to side with the enemy (whoever that is). Collaboration software is a tool that every business with employees who work at different locations ought to consider.

Collaborative software began several decades ago with Lotus Notes. That software allowed multiple users on the same WAN to work on the same spreadsheet or word document at the same time. And Lotus Notes had the added feature of letting you link spreadsheets and word documents at the same time so that any change made to a spreadsheet would automatically populate your word document. But Lotus Notes required people to be on the same WAN and in most companies that meant being in the same building, and so the concept became very popular, plus Microsoft came and kicked Lotus’s butt in the marketplace.

And so collaborative software mostly died off for a while, although there were few open source programs that were widely used by universities and others who love open source software.

But collaborative software is back in a number of different variations and if your company has employees at more than one location, then one of these new software products is going to be right for you. Here are some of the features you can find in various collaborative software today:

  • Number one is the ability to simultaneously let multiple people work on the same document. And instead of just spreadsheets and word documents, this has been extended to any software that users all have rights to use. Most software also creates a log showing who made changes to a document and when.
  • Supports multiple devices. Collaborative software is no longer just for the PCs and employees using tablets and smartphones can share in many of the features. As an example, collaborative software is a great way to keep the sales staff in the field fully engaged with everybody else in the company.
  • Communicate internally. Many collaborative software programs come with chat rooms, instant messaging and text massaging tools that make it fast and easy to communicate with other employees. Why send somebody an email or call them if you only have a quick question that they can answer on an IM?
  • Some systems let you know where people are and if they are available to communicate now. This stops you from calling people who are not in their office and instead communicating with them in a faster way.
  • Create better communications history. In some software each user gets a home page that operates much like Facebook that shows everything they have done, meaning that other employees can often go find information they need without bothering that person.
  • This can become the new way to structure corporate data. With a program like SharePoint you can quickly create folders specific to a topic or a project and then give access only to those you want to have access to that date. This used to require the intervention of somebody in the IT department but now can be done by almost anybody.
  • Gives you a great tool to work with your largest customers. You can give your contacts at your largest customers limited access to your systems so that they can quickly ask questions or talk to the right person by chat or IM. This is a great new way to extend your customer service platform and make it real time. You can easily isolate outsiders from corporate information while giving them access to the social networking aspects of the software.

So what are some of the Collaborative software tools to consider? Here are a few (and there are many others).

  • Podio. This is software that is free for up to five users. It might be a good way to see if you like the concept. After five users it’s $9 per employee per month.
  • IBM (Lotus). The Lotus name is not dead and is now the brand name of the IBM collaborative suite of products. Check them out here.
  • Intuit has a product called QuickBase that is a collaborative suite of software. One good thing about this is that it will integrate with QuickBooks and other Intuit products that you might already be using. Check it out here.
  • SharePoint is Microsoft’s collaborative suite of products and has done very well in the large business sector. See it here.
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Meet CCG

One Hundred Blog Entries

This blog is an introspective look at the blogging experience. Last Friday I posted my 100th blog post. I have written one every work day and they have been posted every day except once when my wife just forgot to post it.

The process of writing a blog every day is a really good exercise for somebody like me. We have so many different clients at CCG and we get pulled into so many different business situations with different issues that I find that I know a little bit about almost everything in the telecom industry. Some things I know a whole lot about, but on many topics I feel I am a thousand miles wide and an inch deep, meaning I know the basics about a topic, but there is much more that I can learn.

So writing this blog has been a learning opportunity for me. I have read books, read thousands of web articles, scoured Wikipedia and talked to people who I consider to be experts. When I write about most of the topics I end up knowing more than when I started, and for a consultant that is not a bad thing.

Not all of my blog posts are factual and some are just my opinion. When I first started the blog I tried to avoid opinion pieces, but then I came to realize that I have strong opinions about some of the things going on in the industry and I decided to let my opinions out of the box. This has also been a learning process for me, because before I can write an opinion piece I still need to think about the topic and do research, and I have found myself modifying my opinion a few times during this process. Certainly the act of thinking deeply about any topic is a healthy mental exercise and I actually look forward to the writing and thinking time.

After I had written 20 blogs I had a fear that I was going to run out of topics. I look around the industry and I don’t see anybody else writing daily blogs, and perhaps I am nuts to try to do so. A lot of industry blogs have posted a dozen entries in the time where I have done 100. I still don’t know exactly what that means, because in daily life I am not overly loquacious, but I seem to not lack words when I write. There may come a day where I struggle to find topics, and if that happens I will slow down. But there is so much going on in this industry that I just don’t see that happening for a while.

I am also a bit surprised by where the blog has taken me. I have spent a lot of time thinking about and writing about the future of the industry. The industry is undergoing more changes right now at a faster pace than ever. Companies are changing, technology is changing and products are changing. Trying to figure out where this is all headed is an interesting exercise. I am sure I going to be wrong about a lot of my predictions, but right about others. Certainly there will be new inventions that will change the landscape in ways we can’t imagine today and that will trump any current predictions. As an example, a decade ago it would have been nearly impossible to predict the impact of social media and there will be the new equivalents to Facebook coming.

I find the Internet of Things to be the most interesting of change of all. The idea of filling our environment with little sensors and tiny computers to give us a different interface with our environment is fascinating and exciting. I have read science fiction books since I was a pre-teen and it is amazing to see us on the cusp of so many of the things predicted in that genre.

I have found myself writing about the cable industry a lot more than I expected, but that is where all of the action is happening. I don’t think anybody expects a future where households buy the huge bundle of channels in the same way they do today. There are too many market forces pushing on the industry to change. But I’m not sure anybody really knows where it will end up in a decade.

I thank my readers for dipping in from time to time to see what I have to say. My volume of readers had grown continually and just watching the blog tools is an interesting thing to do. I can see how many visitors come to my blog each day, and I know how many articles they read (but not who they are). One thing I know now for sure is that the telecom industry shuts down on Friday afternoons and very few people read the blog then.

This is a blog for telecom carriers and it is meeting all of the goals I originally established. It’s making me stay current. It’s helping me understand the issues in the industry. It’s letting me think about the future of the industry and then turning around and making that process relevant to my friends and clients. So, at least for now, I see the blog continuing, so stay tuned.

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Current News Technology

Who Owns the Future?

Jaron Lanier (Photo credit: Thomas Hawk)

I just finished reading Who Owns the Future by Jaron Lanier and it was a really interesting read. He is a pioneer computer scientist and was involved in starting virtual reality. He is listed by Encyclopedia Britannica on a list of the 300 most important inventors.

It’s not the easiest book to read because it bounces from idea to idea, but some of those ideas are intriguing and thought-provoking. Let me hit on a few of them to give you a flavor of the book:

  • He says we have reached a point where technology is devastating the middle class. Industry after industry is folding and not being replaced. Historically, every new technology killed old industries but replaced them with new ones. But that is no longer the case. He points to Kodak which once had 140,000 employees, and it folded and was replaced by Instagram which had 13 employees when Facebook bought them. This has happened in other industries like music stores getting replaced by iTunes, video stores replaced by NetFlix, etc. And he thinks a lot more of this is on the horizon with the growth of 3D printing, self-driving cars, robotic mining equipment, robotic nurses and all the other technology that is being designed to remove the costly human element from the production process.
  • He says that wealth is now being concentrated by those who have the fastest computers. He gives this the name of ‘siren servers’ and he is talking about Google, Facebook, Amazon and all of the other companies that are creating wealth from gathering data about all of us in huge data centers. He argues that we are going to have to find a way to rebalance the information economy because these huge siren servers are using our information for free. He thinks that somehow we need to get paid for the data about us. I reviewed another book here last month by Eric Schmidt, the Executive Chairman of Google who made the same point but who thought that it was more likely there would be a future revolt by people who didn’t like what was being done with their data. But Lanier thinks it’s more likely that the siren servers will win and will know everything about us.
  • Lanier doesn’t think the problems being created are with the Internet, but rather with how the Internet has become organized. Major Internet companies like Google and Facebook tend to form monopolies on a global scale. These businesses succeed by offering something for free – such as the Google search engine, the Facebook social connections, the Linked-In business connections, etc. And for the use of these free services the public gives up tremendous amounts of information about themselves. And it is these huge databases of personal information that is creating the huge book values for these companies.
  • He also doesn’t have a very good opinion of the people running these huge siren server companies. He says that the technologists who are running the siren server companies are narcissists who are blind to the effects they are having on the world. He says that geeks are not really egalitarians despite the t-shirts and flip-flops, and that the technology world is one of pure Darwinism where only the very most successful are able to survive to the point of making money from their technology. He is not comfortable that these are the people who are running the world.

This is the kind of book I really like because it made me think hard. Lanier is looking at the tech world from the perspective of the ultimate insider and is seeing things that I have felt but never was able to put into words before. I personally have always been very leery about how the information gathered on all of us will be used in the future. I read recently that there is an average of 12.5 different places on the Internet that has gathered personal data on each person who uses the Internet. I am growing more leery of accepting the equation of using a site for free and paying for the privilege with information about what I like, who I know, what I am interested in. Lanier says that we are going to lose the battle with the siren servers unless we can find some way to balance the relationship between us and the big companies. I hope we find a way to do that, because I don’t want to live in a Big Brother world.

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Technology The Industry

What Happened to the Digital Divide?

Internet Access Here Sign (Photo credit: Steve Rhode)

There was hardly a time in the late 90’s and early 00’s when broadband was discussed that the topic of digital divide was not mentioned. Government entities, policy people and even service providers talked about solving the digital divide to make sure that everybody had access to the Internet. There were committees and commissions formed in many communities to help solve the digital divide and to make sure that every child had a computer and an internet connection.

From what I can see the topic has disappeared from discussion and I rarely seeing the topic discussed any more. Does this mean that the digital divide has been solved? Certainly there are a lot more households with Internet access today than a decade ago, but do the poorest households now subscribe to the Internet?

Before one can even answer the question we need to define what broadband is. The FCC defines broadband as the ability to get a landline service with a download speed of at least 4 Mbps and an upload speed of 1 Mbps. In most markets that is one of the lower-speed products available and speeds in metropolitan and suburban areas are now much faster than that. According the numbers released by the FCC in August of 2012 there were 19 million people in the US with no access to broadband and another 100 million with access to broadband but who do not purchase it. But there are many who dispute the way that the FCC counted the 19 million figure and think that the real number is much larger.

Another way to look at the market is by households and the Leichtman Research Group did a study in 2012 that showed that there are almost 81 million homes with broadband, or just at 70% of all households. That same study said that broadband penetration rates in homes with average household incomes under $30,000 had only a 52% broadband penetration rate while homes with incomes over $50,000 had a 97% penetration rate. Obviously there are a lot of households who feel they cannot afford broadband.

Today one has to ask if landline broadband is the only kind of broadband. For example comscore reports that 133 million people owned smartphones as of February 2013, or 57% of everybody over 13 years old. Certainly there are many people whose only Internet access is with a smartphone.

A Pew Research Center study released a study earlier this year of the Internet usage of teenagers between 12 and 17. This group uses the Internet more than any other age group and 95% of teenagers access the Internet at least one per month. But 25% of teenagers only have a smartphone to use for Internet access. One has to question if smartphone usage is really broadband. Certainly you can read news, update Facebook and play games on a smartphone. But it’s sheer torture to use a smartphone to write something even as long as this blog and it’s hard to see smartphones being a broadband substitute for school kids trying to do various types of homework. The smartphone wasn’t really designed to handle files in the same way as a laptop or computer.

One thing that is clear in the figures is that the lower the income the less likelihood that a household will find broadband to be affordable. And to me that says that we still have the digital divide. But for some reason, nobody is talking about it anymore.

One statistic that I found interesting is that the Leichtman report said that 90% of households with computers have broadband. When you compare that to the statistics that say that only 52% of households with household incomes under $30,000 have broadband it is also easy to say that an awful lot of those homes don’t have computers.

I remember a decade ago there were major programs developed to get computers into households, particularly households with children. I just did a Google search and found a few such programs are still active, like one in Chicago, but getting computers into homes was a major focus for my clients and the country as a whole a decade ago. And that seems to have basically dwindled away as a priority.

I don’t know the reasons for this, but I can postulate. Broadband access seems to be ubiquitous in middle class neighborhoods and it is now the rare house that doesn’t have a computer and Internet access. Perhaps everybody just assumes that this is now true everywhere, while it is not. If the FCC numbers are to be believed there are still 119 million people without Internet access. Back the babies out of that number and there are still a whole lot of people without broadband.

It seems to me that the digital divide hasn’t gone away at all. We have just stopped talking or caring about it. Maybe it’s time to put this back on the agenda.

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Improving Your Business Technology

Data Mining – It’s Not What Customers Think

I know that when the public hears that their ISP is engaging in data mining that they assume this means that the ISP is reading their emails and monitoring their website viewing. And ISPs do have the ability to do those things although I don’t know any who spy on their customers in that way.

I can certainly understand why data mining scares the average consumer. Supermarkets get you to sign up for their loyalty programs so that they know everything you buy from them. And I know I get a spooky feeling when I express an interest about some product in one place on the Internet and then see ads for that product pop up on Facebook or my Google search.

But data mining is a valuable tool and every ISP should be using it – just not in the same way that the supermarkets and Facebook do it. In fact, we probably need to come up with a better terminology for doing the things I am suggesting below.

There are a number of tools around that let you look at data about customer usage and these tools allow an ISP to do the following:

  • Spambots. There is a wide array of spambots and other malware on the web that can infect customers’ computers. The worst of these, from a network perspective are spambots, which take over your customer’s computers and use it to send out spam. Most ISPs monitor email usage from their own domain and can spot when one of their users has been taken over by a spambot. But most customers these days do not use the email names and domains assigned by their ISP. Instead they web email addresses such as gmail or even the older AOL. And some spambots create new email addresses that the customer doesn’t even know about. And so data mining can be used to look for customers with unusual upload traffic. No customer is going to be offended if you ask them if they are uploading traffic 24 hours per day if in the process you help eliminate Trojan horses and spambots from their computer.
118 – Another File Sharing Session (Photo credit: erickespinosa)
  • Web servers. Most ISPs do not want a customer to be using a residential ISP account to run a commercial web server. A web server is a device that is being used to run a website or service that drives a large amount of download traffic. Such a website might be used for e-commerce for example. But far too often web servers are used to run porn sites. ISPs are not against web servers, but they do expect people who operate them to buy the proper business level service. A web server can be full 24-hours per day, and that is generally not the level of service that is intended for a shared residential product. Data mining can be used to identify web servers and the customer can be directed to a more appropriate (and appropriately priced) service.
  • Data Caps. Most ISPs have set some cap on the amount of usage that a customer can download in a month. And these caps do not have to be small. I have one client that has a 2 terabyte cap each month for residential downloads. But there is no sense in having a data cap if you can’t actually measure how much bandwidth each customer is using. Data mining tools are the way to measure customers’ usage.
  • File sharing. Most ISPs have terms of service that prohibit customers from sharing copyrighted materials with others. But realistically an ISP is not going to know what customers are sharing with each other unless you get a complaint from a copyright holder. But many ISPs still like to get a handle on file-sharing because such traffic can eat up a lot of system bandwidth. Data mining can help you identify customers who are probably involved in one of the common file sharing programs.  An awful lot of file sharing is done by teenagers. I have clients who send out friendly reminders to customers who they think are file sharing that say something like: “We notice by your internet usage that you are probably running a file sharing program. We would just like to remind you that it is illegal to share copyrighted material and that there have been cases where copyright owners have gotten significant settlements by suing people who were sharing their property.” Such notices cut down on a lot of file sharing traffic as parent pressure kids into doing the right thing.

So you should be data mining. But perhaps the things I have described could all better be classified as network management, a term that would not dismay your customers.