Weekly output: Energy Star, holiday shopping, consumer-vs-enterprise mobile apps, cable competition, FreedomPop, backup services

Happy Thanksgiving weekend, everyone! I hope it finds you well.

11/25/2013: Plugged-In with ENERGY STAR – EPA’s Consumer Electronics Podcast, Energy Star

I talked about electrical consumption in new and old gadgets on this podcast put out by the EPA’s Energy Star program with host and EPA spokeswoman Brittney Gordon, Samantha Nevels of the Consumer Electronics Association and Energy Star managers Una Song and Verena Radulovic.

11/26/2013: Let the Black Friday madness begin, Voice of Russia American Edition

I talked for a few minutes about the intersection of holiday marketing and consumer electronics (disclosures: a friend is a producer in their D.C. office).

11/26/2013: Navigating the Enterprise-Consumer Collision Course, Enterprise Mobile Hub

IDG Enterprise’s sponsored Twitter chat focused on how enterprise and consumer mobile apps can learn from each other.

11/26/2013: How One Local Cable Monopoly Can Compete With Another, Disruptive Competition Project

If Comcast buys Time Warner Cable or teams up with another cable operator to engulf TWC, no one TV viewer will gain or lose any cable-TV choices–but the subscription-TV business as a whole will still lose some important forms of competition.

PCMag Freedom Hub Burst review11/27/2013: Freedom Hub Burst (FreedomPop), PCMag

This home wireless-broadband router offers decent speeds–in the relatively few parts of the country with WiMax coverage–but FreedomPop’s creepy, sketchy Web presentation of the service really bothered me. Memo to marketers everywhere: Making visitors cough up both e-mail and street addresses just to see prices is a profoundly stupid way to introduce yourself to customers.

12/1/2013: How to choose a good backup system, USA Today

I was overdue to compare online backup services, and Comcast’s shuttering of its own offering gave me an excuse to test-drive Backblaze, Carbonite, CrashPlan and Mozy. One issue I’ve realized since filing this piece: Carbonite eats an awful lot of processor cycles on my Mac. Another: good deals on Backblaze and Mozy through Monday.

My Sulia microblogging was mostly Thanksgiving-themed, with one post comparing Google Maps and MapQuest’s performance on the rather gruesome drive up and four about family tech support (updating my mom’s Mac, introducing my father-in-law to Android Device Manager, fixing my sister-in-law’s iPhone-driver problem, freeing up space on my wife’s iPad). I also found time to visit one of Google’s “Winter Wonderlab” exhibits at a nearby mall, leading to the slow-mo video you can watch after the jump.

Updated 12/3 when I realized I’d forgotten to mention the Energy Star podcast.

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Weekly output: app stores, NEC Terrain, HTC 8XT, ride-sharing, cable modems, guest WiFi

I spent three days in a row working outside of my home without actually leaving town, courtesy of the Usenix Security Symposium taking place in Washington. That was a little confusing.

8/13/2013: Mobile App Certification, IDG Enterprise

Another enterprise-focused Twitter chat I helped host. This week’s looked at company-specific app stores and other ways a business might try to regulate what mobile software runs on its network.

PCMag NEC Terrain review

8/15/2013: NEC Terrain (AT&T), PCMag.com

My first review for this new client covered NEC’s ruggedized Android phone, one of the last acts of a company leaving the smartphone business. I appreciated its sturdiness, but not its tiny screen or the high odds of future Android apps not running on the Terrain.

8/16/2013: HTC 8XT (Sprint), PCMag.com

My second covered a successor of sorts to a Windows Phone device I tried out earlier this year but wound up not reviewing for anybody. I can’t say the 8XT represents an upgrade over the 8X.

8/16/2013: Ride-Sharing Revs Up Around D.C., And Regulators May Not Even Freak Out Over It, Disruptive Competition Project

I returned to a topic I covered this spring–car- and ride-sharing services that can make private auto ownership more efficient by making private auto use more widely distributed–to note what seems to be a change in attitude among regulatory agencies in the District and elsewhere.

8/18/2013: Should you buy your own cable modem?, USA Today

This Q&A item about Time Warner Cable’s recent increase in its modem rental fee has really blown up–it’s picked up more comments than, maybe, anything I’ve written for USAT. There’s also a tip at the end about setting up a guest WiFi network and, should you desire, naming it “openwireless.org” to make it clear to passerby that they’re welcome to use it.

At Sulia, I relayed an avid D-SLR photographer’s assessment of the Nokia 1020, complained about “captive portal” WiFi networks that have names generic enough for my phone to have remembered them from other sites, noted a couple of presentations from the Usenix conference (one on a study of the effectiveness of browser-security warnings, another on Windows 8’s security upgrades), and shared reader feedback over the cable-modem item.

Updated 8/24 to add the IDG Twitter chat I’d left out. And updated again 9/29 with a better link to that.

Qualms Over QAM (2012 CEA re-post)

(Since a site redesign at the Consumer Electronics Association resulted in the posts I wrote for CEA’s Digital Dialogue blog vanishing, along with everything there older than last November, I’m reposting a few that I think still hold up or shed light on current issues. This one ran on Feb. 14, 2012;  the AllVid effort I mentioned at the end has gone nowhere since, but in October, the Federal Communications Commission voted to allow QAM encryption–with results that I’ll be discussing in this weekend’s USA Today column.)

This month’s telecom-policy squabble covers a TV technology that nobody seems to love–if they even know it exists.

The system in question goes by the name QAM, short for “quadrature amplitude modulation,” and it’s the only way to tune into digital cable without a box. But while “cable-ready” sets dealt fairly well with even premium channels in the mid 1990s, QAM’s horizons are far more limited.

Coax cableYou can’t count on QAM providing more than the “basic tier” of local broadcast stations plus public, educational and government channels. Forget ESPN or even CNN; to get those without a cable box, you need a CableCard-compliant device–which in practice means either a TiVo digital video recorder or one of a few add-on tuners for computers.

But it’s worse than that: As readers have testified and I’ve seen myself, QAM reception often presents a puzzling picture of your cable choices. Channels can appear under seemingly random numbers–and then move to new ones or disappear outright.

So the proposal now before the Federal Communications Commission to allow cable operators to encrypt QAM signals on all-digital networks–simplifying their systems while cutting off existing QAM hardware–might not seem like anything worth fussing over.

And yet for a small minority of users, QAM does work. Some use it on second or third sets (PDF); some resorted to basic-tier cable after failing to get adequate over-the-air digital-TV reception; some employ it to use computers as digital video recorders. And these subscribers don’t want it to go away.

How many people are we talking about? The Web-media-receiver vendor Boxee says that 40 percent of buyers of its new Boxee Live TV device use QAM to receive cable TV through that add-on. You could dismiss that as a figment of a small sample size; that $49 add-on has only been on sale since January. But a more established computer-video vendor, Hauppauge Computer Works, also cited 40 percent QAM usage (PDF) among buyers of its PC peripherals.

The Consumer Electronics Association has no stats for this segment of the market.

CEA has joined those manufacturers in their opposition to QAM encryption, writing in a November filing (PDF) that the FCC should decline this request unless it also moves forward on other, long-standing proposals to open up the market for TV hardware (more on that in a moment).

The cable companies’ arguments, as related over a call Friday with representatives of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, fall into three categories:

• Cable operators’ own figures suggest that almost nobody relies on QAM. Cablevision, which obtained a waiver from the FCC to start encrypting QAM after converting to all-digital service in New York, N.Y., reported that “less than 0.1 percent of subscribers” (PDF) requested a free set-top box or CableCard to decode it.

• Encryption will allow remote activation and deactivation, without sending a technician on a truck to somebody’s house. (NCTA realizes that people don’t like sitting through four-hour service windows.)

• Encryption will also stop people from tuning into basic-tier cable without paying. RCN, among other cable operators, reports (PDF) this is a growing problem among Internet-only subscribers.

It’s important to note that the the cable operators, while maybe not everyone’s favorite companies, have been way ahead of satellite vendors in the interoperability game. DirecTV users who wanted to plug in a TiVo could only wait for that service to ship its own “DirecTiVo” model; that recently arrived, years late, to complaints over its aged interface.

Meanwhile, CableCard finally seems to work as advertised–even if that’s happened too late for some pioneering CableCard vendors. Once-prominent TiVo rival Moxi Digital gave up the fight two weeks ago when its new owner, ARRIS Group, announced that it would only sell through cable operators.

There’s been a proposal afoot, against opposition from cable, to set a comprehensive pay-TV standard called “AllVid” that would work not just for cable but also satellite and fiber-optic services. It would allow every screen in a home network to tie into a simple gateway adapter–the video equivalent of the wireless router that links a cable modem and a laptop.

That’s what CEA has been asking for in return for giving up clear QAM. Boxee could also live with this tradeoff, said spokesman Andrew Kippen; Hauppauge CEO Ken Plotkin, however, was not to ready to make that deal.

Me, I think I could live with that bargain–if it included an assurance that current QAM users who will have to tolerate a new box and remote control won’t have to pay extra for them. (If encrypting QAM harms so few people and yields as many benefits as cable operators say, they should be able to afford subsidizing that hardware.)

But this is an easy thing for me to say, since I switched to over-the-air and Internet broadcasts years ago. If you pay for cable today, I’d rather know your opinion: Would you trade simple reception of entry-level cable today for easy access to a full lineup of channels a few years from now?