Sunday Sep 27, 2009

Another new U-verse feature

Word of mouth is the best marketing. Literally in this case. My neighbor told me another new feature was delivered to AT&T set top boxes to allow you to play media content from your hope PC's to your TV. Already of course I could sync my iPod, and carry it down to the docking station in the living room. Or I could write music and photos to a USB stick and plug it into the TV to see and hear it. Or I could upload content to Yahoo and view it through U-verse.

This is different. The set top boxes simply connect to Windows Media Player on PC's through the home router to access content without sending anything outside the home. Well this won't work for me, I thought, because I don't run Windows native. I run Windows XP under VirtualBox virtualization software.

I only had to install Media Player 11 (version 9 is too old) and select "bridged adapter" networking for my Windows virtual machine. (I doubt that NAT would work since the virtual machine wouldn't be visible on the network, but I didn't try it.) Now all my TV's can browse music and photos on two PC's. Select background music and start a slide show of today's snapshots. Really nice.

Tuesday Feb 12, 2008

AT&T Uverse more stable again

AT&T pushed out TV2 client version 1.2.43048.3, running on WinCE/5.0.1400 to our set top boxes, and so far so good. When we first got Uverse its Windows heritage showed in frequent crashes requiring reboots to restore television service. Soon afterwards they pushed a new version and everything was stable for a few months - indeed more stable than the Time Warner cable set top box had been. But in the last couple of weeks the stability problems were back, and I hadn't been checking the version to see if that was related. Now I'll watch more closely.

The box connected to the HDTV always has the most problems. Maybe the software has more trouble doing 1080i than doing 420p on standard TV's. Or maybe it's because that box has a DVR. Or - dabbling now in conspiracy theories - it's the fault of DRM. I'm using an HDMI cable there which is supposed to give the best picture, and without all the extra cables you'd need with DVI. But it also has copy protection built in. I wonder if buggy copy protection software is making the set top box crash.

Do you remember when televisions contained tubes, not computers? And your TV wasn't shipped under terms of the Gnu Public License?

Monday Sep 10, 2007

TV remote works from 1,000 miles

New use for Nokia N800: TV remote control. Really remote - like anywhere on the Internet. Browse TV listings, select shows to be recorded on DVR, check recording schedule, check previous recordings and delete ones I don't want any more. Actually, all the Nokia provides for this function is the web browser. We decided to give AT&T U-verse a try, in part because our old cable service kept having bandwidth shortages and outages for video on demand, especiallly on weekends. Also I read that AT&T used Sun servers for video delivery, so I thought they'd be able to deliver the necessary bandwidth. So far that seems to be the case, and with greatly improved latency, so it's hard to tell whether I'm viewing content from the remote servers or from the local DVR hard disk. You can record and/or watch four shows simultaneously.

AT&T salesmen seem to have a problem with over promising some features of U-verse, but I've found some cool features that they are definitely under selling. Being able to control your DVR from a web browser is nice, both because you can do it from anywhere, and because a keyboard and mouse (or pen in the case of the Nokia) provides a more usable interface than a TV remote.

U-verse also lets you browse information about a TV show or movie, with links to the actors and director. E.g. click on the director to see more of his movies which are coming up in the "broadcast" schedule or available in video on demand, then click on the one you want to schedule it for recording. I used to do this looking up the information in but the integration of movie information with the schedule and DVR makes it much more convenient. Too bad they currently only deliver these TV hyperlinks over the TV, not on the web. And they don't have a facility where you can register a "wish list" of movies, favorite directors, and favorite actors, to be alerted when something you might like is coming up. But that's all just a "simple matter of programming" so maybe later...

One caveat for the Nokia: the standard browser won't work with the AT&T Yahoo web site for program listings and TV control. The web site complains that you must use a current version of Internet Explorer or Firefox, locking out the Nokia's Opera based browser. Typical web designer tunnel vision to ignore Opera, which I'd bet would work just fine if I made it mis-identify itself as Explorer. Fortunately the Mozilla web engine for Nokia is allowed into the web site and works fine.

Thursday Aug 16, 2007

I love DRM!

Well no, of course not. But I don't hate it any more than some other of life's annoyances. DRM assumes that I, their paying customer, am determined to steal from them. But how about ink tags on clothing, video cameras in department stores, and tire shredders in rental car lots? All those are annoyances based on the assumption that the customer is trying to steal. If DRM becomes a major annoyance, it can drive customers away.

Take Sony's root kit DRM on audio CD's. The obvious conclusion was that to protect your PC from damage, stay away from Sony music. Even after they repented, the damage to their reputation was done. Who knows how much long term business they lost? Surely many times the amount of piracy their root kits prevented.

In 2002 Intuit decided to add copy protection to TurboTax using product activation. I had been a loyal customer for many years who never would have considered switching. For the last several years I had been using TurboTax under the Win4Lin virtual machine on Linux, which was convenient because all my records were on Linux. But Intuit's product activation wouldn't work under virtualization. So I'd have to repeatedly reboot every time I needed to look up another piece of information. So I switched to H&R Block's TaxCut. Even after Intuit repented it took a few years before I felt like putting in the effort to switch back again. Other people had plenty of other troubles with Intuit's product activation, and they lost customers and reputation.

But Apple's DRM on iTunes - you know, the one that Steve Jobs dislikes - that DRM isn't so bad. Yes, I understand that it locks me into iPod, but that's only a minor annoyance to me. And I realize the potential for Apple to suddenly render all my purchased music unplayable, as Google did for its movie customers. If that happened it would of course be a major annoyance, but I think it's very unlikely. I trust Apple. It would be against their interests to close iTunes. And whereas Google's videos die when Google shuts down their server, Apple music would remain playable without the iTunes store - unless Apple deliberately pushed out an iTunes software update with self-destruct.

iTunes wins on price over a CD for a single song. Its restrictions of 5 computers and 7 copies of a playlist burned to CD don't seem at all onerous to me. And they not only allow backups, they make them easy. If I want a whole CD though, the physical CD wins because it's about the same price with no DRM and no restrictions. And emusic wins on price and lack of restrictions.

For movies iTunes is much more convenient than DVD's. Prices of movies are about the same for both. iTunes DRM is much less intrusive than the DRM on DVD's. Although the DRM on DVD's is trivial to break, some people believe that the Digital Millenium Copyright Act makes it illegal to break it, even for your own fair use of movies that you purchased. Scratch a DVD and you're out $20 with no backups. You can only watch it on your TV or Windows PC, and no mobile use.

Buy the same movie from iTunes, and if anything happens to it you just restore from backup. You can watch it on your TV - any TV actually since an iPod is easier to carry around than a DVD player. You can watch it anywhere on your iPod. And you can watch it on your Windows or Mac PC.

Bottom line: what value will they sell me for what price versus their competition? DRM is negative value, but depending on how well or badly it's done it doesn't necessarily make a product worthless.


Wednesday Aug 09, 2006

Television-computer convergence

Paul Boutin wrote in Slate Magazine, The Myth of the Living-Room PC, "the one thing I wanted to see hard data on was conspicuously absent from Jobs' keynote. It's been nearly a year since Apple added downloadable videos and a couch-surfing remote to its lineup." And, "Seven months after Viiv's launch, it seems what happened in Vegas stayed in Vegas: Dell's big rollout never happened, and the rumor that Apple was launching a 50-inch plasma-screen Viiv turned out to be pure baloney."

I think the source of Boutin's disappointment is his expectation that the "Living-Room PC" will arrive as a computer that can do television. The consumer electronics companies see it differently - the computer as just one more component of a television. Boutin's anticipated convergence arrived years ago, and few people noticed.

Of course we all know that DVR's are really computers, but I was surprised when I opened a new Sony WEGA HDTV television box and out fell a GPL for Linux. And while I can get the source code from Sony's web site, there is apparently no way without a screwdriver and more courage than I possess to alter the TV software.

That's fine with me because all I really want to do with my television is watch television. On, off, channel, volume. Sony gets it. Those of us in the computer business sometimes expect our customers to be far more interested in computers than they really are. Sure, many of them are experts in various computing fields and could do a lot, so it's great to have all the dials and knobs they can turn if needed. But when they're instead focused on banking, medical research, or retail logistics, they shouldn't have to worry about computers - no more than I have to configure my GRUB parameters to watch TV.


I am a software engineer in San Diego, president of the Standard Performance Evaluation Corporation (, formerly a mathematician and a violist.


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