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Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip is a another take on the emerging foldable phone format.

Unlike earlier foldable phones which are the size of everyday phones that open to become an iPad mini-sized tablet, the Flip opens long ways. It resembles the flip phones that we are supposed to feel nostalgia for.

It’s neat, but not as useful as other folding phones for reading complex documents.

Samsung Galaxy Z Flip

But there’s something else about the Galaxy Z Flip that appeals to me. It goes a long way to protect you from notification hell.

There’s a tiny screen on the front of the phone which lights up when there is an incoming notification. This is a lot less distracting than having a conventional phone screen light up with with a notification message.

Moreover, because you have to physically open the phone to read the full notification, there is a lot more distance between you and the incoming distraction.

It is easier to ignore the notification and easier to park it for later when you are not trying to focus. It’s not much protection, but enough to ease the cognitive load for a moment or two.

Of course the other possibility is to turn notifications off. That would be cheaper.

Last week Spark announced its first half results for the six months to December 31. It is a solid report showing strong revenue growth.

Spark looks to be heading on the right track. Yet there is an interesting angle on one of the company’s strategic moves.

Nine paragraphs into the market release there is this quote from CEO Jolie Hodson:

“We made a deliberate decision to limit wireless broadband sales in the lead up to the Rugby World Cup, as a conservative measure to ensure customers had a great viewing experience while we introduced our new streaming service. Our capacity was more than sufficient, so we expect this to be a one-off and connection growth to return to trend in the second half.”

In other words Spark back-pedalled on fixed wireless broadband sales because senior management didn’t want customers to have a disappointing Rugby World Cup streaming experience.

Fixed wireless alternative

Spark pushes fixed wireless broadband to its customers as an alternative to fibre. It’s a strategic move because Spark owns its wireless network. That means the company doesn’t pay a wholesale fee to a fibre company. It keeps all the money and that makes for a higher profit margin.

Investors love that.

Downplaying fixed wireless broadband in the run up to the Rugby World Cup made sense. Although fixed wireless broadband should be able to give customers enough bandwidth to watch high definition streaming video, that’s not always the case in practice.

Unlike fibre, which has consistent and predictable performance, fixed wireless broadband performance varies from place to place. In some cases it also varies at different times of the day.

Fixed wireless broadband bandwidth is shared. So if a lot of people connect at once, speeds can drop. The Rugby World Cup saw data traffic peak across the nation. That put pressure on more marginal fixed wireless broadband connections.

Good at times

Fixed wireless broadband can be good. I’ve heard from happy fixed wireless customers who enjoy decent speeds and uninterrupted connections.

There are others who say their service does not do an adequate job with streaming video.

One common complaint is that wireless broadband speeds are not consistent. In some cases speeds vary in a regular pattern over the course of a day. Others say they get intermittent slow downs.

Conservative on fixed wireless broadband

Spark describes the decision to back-pedal on selling fixed wireless as conservative. That may be the case. But it underlines that the company is not confident about its fixed wireless performance.

There was no conservatism about selling fibre broadband to customers in the run up to the Rugby World Cup.

The message is clear: Spark knows fixed wireless broadband is a lower quality product. It knows customers get a better experience on fibre.

That said, fixed wireless broadband is often an acceptable alternative for customers living in areas that are not served by fibre. It is the main technology for Rural Broadband Initiative customers.

Again, going by user anecdotes, some people who can’t get fibre find fixed wireless performs better than their local copper broadband service. Others do better with a fast copper connection.

SamKnows

This is all anecdotal. Yet there is some evidence in the Spring 2019 Measuring Broadband New Zealand report prepared for Commerce Commission by SamKnows.

Broadband download speeds peak versus 24-7 performance

Customers with a 100 mbps fibre plan saw average download speeds of 99mbps. During peak time the dial barely moved. Samknows reported peak speeds at 98.6 mbps.

With fixed wireless broadband the average speed is 25.8 mbps. At peak times this drops to 22.7 mbps. That’s not a huge drop, but it squares with the anecdotal evidence that some customers see big drops while others see little or no drop.

Fixed wireless broadband latency

The SamKnows data also looks at latency. This is the time it takes for data to do a round trip. If latency is high, online users of applications like video conferencing and gaming can expect stuttering and dropouts. SamKnows says 30 ms is high.

SamKnows found nine in ten fibre connections had latency below 20 ms. In comparison 95 precent of fixed wireless connections had latency of over 30 ms. The average latency is around 50 ms.

Of all the latency tests performed on Fibre connections, 92% were below 20ms. At the other end of the chart, 95% of Fixed Wireless latency results were above 30ms.

Dropouts

That’s past the point where dropouts start. With everyday TV streaming, buffering can shoulder some of that load. Even so, it is a worse customer experience.

SamKnows’ summary says:

“…many fixed wireless connections will experience issues with latency-sensitive applications such as video calls and gaming.”

VDSL2+ can deliver near fibre speeds and in some cases is consistent and reliable. Before fibre came down my road I had a Spark VDSL2+ connection that delivered a consistent speed of more than 70mbps.

In three years it never wavered. You can read about my fixed wireless experience in this post. The speed was never anything like as fast as the VDSL2+ connection.

Fibre most reliable

Of course VDSL2+ is not as good as fibre. In the report summary SamKnows says:

“Households with multiple user should consider fibre, if available, for the most reliable performance.”

Spark knows all of this. The reason it pushes fixed wireless broadband is that the margins are higher. That’s because there is no wholesale charge.

For many Spark customers fixed wireless broadband is the right product. But let’s not pretend it isn’t an inferior product to fibre. Spark is willing to let its investors know that.

Disclaimer: I edit The Download magazine for Chorus as a contractor. It covers the company, the telecommunications industry and fibre broadband. These are my views and not those of Chorus. 

Y2K bug has 2020 echoThe millennium bug is back with a vengeance, after programmers in the 1990s simply pushed the problem back by 20 years.
Source: A lazy fix 20 years ago means the Y2K bug is taking down computers now | New Scientist

The New Scientist reports on problems with software caused by an echo of the Y2K bug that had every excited in the late 1990s.

It turns out one of the fixes then was to kick various software cans down the road to 2020. In theory that gave people 20 years to find long term answers to the problems. In some cases they might have expected software refreshes to have solved the issue.

As the New Scientist reports:

Parking meters, cash registers and a professional wrestling video game have fallen foul of a computer glitch related to the Y2K bug.

The Y2020 bug, which has taken many payment and computer systems offline, is a long-lingering side effect of attempts to fix the Y2K, or millennium bug.

Both stem from the way computers store dates. Many older systems express years using two numbers – 98, for instance, for 1998 – in an effort to save memory. The Y2K bug was a fear that computers would treat 00 as 1900, rather than 2000.

It turns out that as many as 80 percent of the quick fixes in the 1990s used a technique called ‘windowing’. This meant treating all dates from the 00s to 20s as 2000 to 2020 instead of 1900 to 1920.

In one case people selling cars got acknowledgements from the UK Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency dated in the early years of last century. That’s not going to cause havoc, but you can get an idea of the problem.

There’s another problem in the offing. The year 2038 problem.

This happens because Unix time started on January 1 1970. Time since then is stored as a 32-bit integer. On January 19 2038, that integer will overflow.

Most modern applications and operating systems have been patched to fix this although there are some compatibility problems. The real issue comes with embedded hardware, think of things like medical devices, which will need replacing some time in the next 18 years.

To my knowledge no-one in New Zealand has come across similar 2020 problems. Or have they? If you know of any please get in touch.

Are we on the cusp of an ‘AI winter’?

Source: Researchers: Are we on the cusp of an ‘AI winter’? – BBC News

The BBC talks to researchers who suggest after a summer of activity, AI could be about to enter a winter. They have a point:

Hype surrounding AI has peaked and troughed over the years as the abilities of the technology get overestimated and then re-evaluated. The peaks are known as AI summers, and the troughs AI winters. The 10s were arguably the hottest AI summer on record with tech giants repeatedly touting AI’s abilities.

Note the language here: “tech giants repeatedly touting AI’s abilities”. Not every claimed AI success was really about artificial intelligence.

Some of the time they were talking about AI. Some of the time the were talking about trawling through huge piles of data. That’s not to say there weren’t huge strides in artificial intelligence. There were. But there was also a lot of other stuff dressed up as AI because that term came back into fashion.

AI pioneer Yoshua Bengio, sometimes called one of the “godfathers of AI”, told the BBC that AI’s abilities were somewhat overhyped in the 10s by certain companies with an interest in doing so. There are signs, however, that the hype might be about to start cooling off.

He isn’t kidding. The Gartner Hype Cycle talks about the peak of inflated expectations. During the last decade those peaks ranged higher and higher.

“I have the sense that AI is transitioning to a new phase,” said Katja Hofmann, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research in Cambridge. Given the billions being invested in AI and the fact that there are likely to be more breakthroughs ahead, some researchers believe it would be wrong to call this new phase an AI winter.

Calling it a ‘winter’ is more hype. Technology and science have always had uneven progress. The term does give tech companies a useful fig leaf should progress slow and they have to justify themselves to investors.

Robot Wars judge Noel Sharkey, who is also a professor of AI and robotics at Sheffield University, told the BBC that he likes the term “AI autumn” — and several others agree.

First, the AI summer was overheated. For a while everything tech had AI applied to it. The term was and continues to be misused in ways that leave non-technical people puzzled.

A lot of ‘AI’ is not artificial intelligence in any meaningful sense. And even the more impressive examples of what AI can do are often in practice huge lists of IF…THEN statements working through vast amounts of data.

Take camera makers who say their phones use AI to determine what kind of image they are shooting. The implication is that a phone makes AI calculations at the time the camera shutter clicks. That’s not the case. What’s actually going on is that cameras are using the results of earlier AI analysis. The phone cameras do not learn as they go.

This is not to say AI has not achieved great things. It does and continues to do so every day. AI is changing the world. Yet a lot of the excitement is nothing but hype, bandwagon jumping or AI-washing.

Research company Gartner has made a reputation for itself examining technology hype cycles. Many technologies have progressed along Gartner’s path. Some have fallen away before they get past the Trough of Disillusionment.

AI is on a different trajectory. In part that’s because it’s a more complex and nuanced idea than many of the technologies tracked by the hype cycle.

The BBC story goes on to play down some of the expectation about AI. It’s a balanced overview, with a neat précis of where things are heading. Let’s hope that includes less hype.

The life of the journalist is poor, nasty, brutish and short. So is his style.

Stella Gibbons,
Cold Comfort Farm

And then there is Blaise Pascal. In 1657 he wrote:

Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.

One way this translates into modern English is:

If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter

And that’s the key point. Writing prose that is nasty, brutish and short requires more time and skill than most people imagine. The old school news style of writing seems to be dying, but I’m not ready to let go of it yet.