Tuesday, September 28, 2010

TV is Dead

OK, I've said it. As a boy who grew up watching far more television than I would like to admit, TV is dead.

I remember the doldrums of summer reruns and having to watch the shows I'd already seen, but with the teasers of a brand new season that started about the time I was going back to school.

I remember the excitement of a new theme song for a TV show and new episodes of my favorite characters when the new season started.

I remember wanting to schedule my time at home so I could see a favorite show, because that's when it was being broadcast and I wanted to be able to talk to my friends about it the next day.

As the youngest member of my family, I remember being the "human remote control" ("Mark, go change the channel") — or the "human antenna" ("Mark, hold onto the rabbit ears, because the picture is best when you do it.").

I remember when the only place we could watch television was in the living room or family room — wherever there happened to be the only TV in the house.

I remember when any channel above 13 — what was called UHF — was considered sub-standard at best. Anything that was good was on somewhere from channel 2 to channel 13.

Needless to say, I'm dating myself.

Perhaps the biggest change was time shifting. This occurs when people can record a show and watch it when they want to. VCRs brought this into existence and heralded a significant change in people's viewing habits and the entertainment industry as a whole.

Time shifting has gone far beyond VCRs to include DVRs (digital video recorders) — some even being provided by the cable companies themselves. But most of the major networks, such as ABC, CBS and NBC now offer viewing of major shows through their websites or through their affiliate sites such as Hulu.com or even YouTube.com.

Cable TV also caused a major change in the way television is viewed, bringing far more channels to the typical viewer than was available over the air via the antenna on one's roof. Interestingly, cable TV is being seen by some as declining, in favor of Internet-based television and streaming video.

The point to all of this is that television used to be entertainment that we consumed that was dictated by someone who set the schedule for when we would be entertained. That's simply not the case anymore.

The new watchword is: on-demand. People can now watch television, movies, events, classes and any other items when they want and where they want.

That part about "where they want" is also huge. Again, it used to be that television was consumed from either a living room of family room in a home.

The number of screens that people have has exploded. With a typical home having at least one screen per family member (TV plus computers) plus smart phones (iPhones, Android, BlackBerry and others) that allow streaming of video, plus tablet computers (iPads most notably), the ability to watch content is far easier.

Most of these computer devices are also mobile. With wireless Internet services, it's essentially possible to enjoy entertainment wherever you happen to be.

Entertainment is alive and well. In fact, the amount of content being produced continues to increase dramatically. What is changing is how people consume the content and how people get paid for it. These are two huge challenges for the entertainment industry and I have no doubt that the models will emerge that will make entertainment viable for years to come.

But, for now, I'm glad I don't have to stand by my old television and hold the rabbit ears.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 28 September 2010.
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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Whole House Internet

Ah, remember the days when an Internet connection meant plugging your phone line into your computer's modem port and you had to dial up and listen to the funny tones as the modems connected? And you could use the Internet in your home anywhere you had a phone line that you didn't mind tying up for hours on end?

Oh, and you probably only had one computer in your home. And maybe even only one phone line.

Needless to say, very few people would find that an acceptable way of life nowadays.

For the typical home, we want high-speed, always-on Internet access everywhere in our home -- and perhaps even outside, too. It's not unusual for people to want Internet access in their garden, on the patio, by the swimming pool, or even in the garage.

So how does one distribute Internet access throughout the home?

Now it's expected that high speed, always on Internet access will be available throughout one's home.

If you have a relatively new home (less than 10 years old), the builder probably installed what's called "structured wiring." This distributes many different types of wires throughout your home. These wires can be Coaxial (sometimes called "coax") which is used primarily for cable TV signals and standard four-conductor phone wire.

Other types include unshielded twisted pair (UTP), sometimes Cat 5, Cat5e, or Cat 6, depending on its rated speed (the bigger the number the faster the rated speed). UTP is also mistakenly called Ethernet cable. Although UTP can carry Ethernet signals, it's also used for analog phone signals and other applications.

The final type of cable that I sometime see is fiber optic. This delivers ultra high speeds, but frankly, is still largely unused to its capacity in most homes. Plus some of the equipment to work with fiber is still far more expensive than working with other types of cables.

My recommendation when people ask me about the technology for their home is to put in as many cables as they can reasonably expect, especially for networking and whole house audio and video. Either as part of that or in conjunction with installing lots of cables, use conduits that allow wires to easily be added when a new technology comes along that requires a new type of cable.

So, for people where their homes are fairly new, distributing Internet access to various parts of the home is pretty straightforward. Simply plug your computer into your Ethernet ports in your various rooms and you're off and running.

But what about the rest of us who don't have cabling throughout our homes? We really have three options:

First, string cables to wherever we need them. Depending on your home's configuration, this can be easy or hard. If you have attic and basement space and both are unfinished, it's not too difficult to run new cables to many locations. This is my first choice for both speed and reliability.

Second, go wireless. Install a wireless access point such as the Linksys WAP610N ($109.99). There are various wireless standards, each with its own letter. The most popular are A, B, G, and N. B and G are the most popular, but N is the newest and fastest. Look for a wireless access point that supports all three standards. Many routers include wireless capabilities.

The problem with wireless is that it doesn't like going through anything except air. Ceilings, walls, floors, refrigerators and distance all reduce the speed and reliability of wireless connections. So, if your wireless access point is in the basement, even being upstairs in the kitchen will degrade the signal noticeably.

Third, use your home's electrical wires for data. While we may not have structured wiring in our homes, we all have electrical wires in our homes. Networking companies have figured out a way to send Ethernet signals across our home wiring and it works quite well.

By using a technology dubbed Powerline, you can plug in a device to your Ethernet switch and then a wall socket. Plug a companion product elsewhere in your home and you have extended your Ethernet network in a reliable way. If you want to plug in a wireless access point in the remote room, you've avoided all of the walls and other interference that's inherent in wireless networks. A Powerline kit I've used is the Linksys PLK-300 ($124.99).

I've always been a fan of copper wire for its speed and security, but by combining wired and wireless technology, it's pretty easy to provide high-speed, always-on Internet access throughout your home.

From now on, may the only time you hear the sound of a squawking modem connecting be in the movies.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 15 September 2010.
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Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Art of Making Things

I've always been in awe of people who can make things, whether it be a paper airplane, a wooden table, an automobile, a home, a rocket ship, a bridge, or even a pyramid.

Each one of these things started as an idea and then someone had to figure out what materials were needed, the tools required to make it, how to fold, cut, stack, glue, or staple the pieces together, and then enlist other people to help them.

When the project is completed, if the item works as intended, that's a huge accomplishment.

But people don't build as much stuff as they used to. The days of the woodshop in the garage are numbered. The days of people working on their own cars are numbered, too. And the most recent pyramid built is more of a temple to gambling gods in Las Vegas, a stark contrast to its predecessor's truly otherwordly purposes.

Luckily, we still have good carpenters who not only fix stuff in our homes, but also build fine furniture. We still have good mechanics who not only fix our cars, but who experiment on how to make lower emissions, convert energy to horsepower, reduce drag and increase acceleration.

The days of the tinkerer are seemingly over. So when Make magazine (www.makezine.com) came out a few years ago, I was overjoyed. It's a magazine for do-it-yourselfers who like to build stuff.

Typically, projects in Make are geared around electronics, but not always.

For example, in the current issue, Volume 23, there are articles on how to make a "Mosquito Death Ray;" hacking a toilet plunger to push, not pull; how to use an infrared thermometer; favorite gadgets, and more.

In previous issues, I've seen projects such as how to use a kite and a camera to take aerial photos and arrays of LEDs that kids can not only build, but also program.

With many of the projects, there are references where you can download the instructions and even companies that will sell you the kits, so it's more of an example of assembling parts rather than trying to scrounge them from different stores.

One project I find particularly ingenious is what the magazine calls "The Most Useless Machine." Basically, it's a box with a switch on top. When you turn the switch on, an arm comes out and turns the switch off, then it goes back into the box.

If you recall the toy bank that, when you put a quarter in a slot, a hand came out and grabbed it, this is pretty similar.

The difference is that with Make magazine, you not only read about it, but you can learn how to build one, often with basic tools.

I'm a strong advocate that we need to build more stuff. It's valuable learning for children and adults to know how things work, how to solve problems, and understand the basics of mechanics and electricity.

Make magazine also puts on a series of events called Maker Faire (see: http://makerfaire.com/newyork/2010/). Maker Faires are where do-it-yourselfers bring things they've made, whether they be machines, computers, Rube Goldberg contraptions, rockets, flamethrowers, boats, gadgets, or much more. Here's a link to a video from a 2009 Maker Faire -- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=45xt-3Z5MI4

The first east coast event is happening on Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 25 and 26, in Queens, N.Y. I've not been to a Maker Faire, but am looking to attending this one. Not only are the items there fascinating, but the creativity, imagination and ingenuity that has gone into these items incredible. It's an inspiration to see first-hand that our ability to think and create is still alive.

For kids, it's a great opportunity to see things that ordinary people have built. Much like the television show CSI gets children interested in science, Make magazine and Maker Faires can expose children to other areas of interest that could spark imagination in them.

One of these days, pick up a copy of Make magazine and follow the instructions to build something. It might be the start of something great for your family. And you may discover an artist in your family.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 1 September 2010.
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