Gphone: Third time lucky for Andy Rubin?

Fascinating piece in the Times on Andy Rubin, the guy behind the Gphone project — about which we are supposed to be getting some details on Monday (although actual devices running the Google mobile OS won’t be coming until next year sometime, supposedly).

Along with the requisite geek-lord toys (retinal scanner at the door, giant remote-control helicopters, robotic hand that bangs a gong instead of a doorbell, etc.), we get some history on Rubin, who joined Google after it acquired his mobile startup, Android. That was his second attempt to change the mobile device business — with the first being Danger Inc., the company that made the Sidekick smart-phone.

Although the Sidekick was hip and achieved a certain geek cred, it never really took off (Ionut Alex Chitu has more on the Sidekick at Google Operating System). Why? I wish I knew. I tried out an early model and really liked it. It was a little bulky, but the flip-out screen was pretty cool — and better still, it was a device that was designed for instant messaging and web surfing. Maybe it was just ahead of its time.

If it was ahead of its time, then so was one of Rubin’s other big projects: WebTV. Although lots of people are talking about the convergence of the television and the Internet now, putting the two together just didn’t work when WebTV tried it. Why not? I wish I knew. I came across a number of older people who liked it a lot, because they could sit on the couch and write emails or look at websites, but it never really took off.

Maybe Rubin will have better luck with the Gphone. This time (from the sounds of it) it’s just software and not hardware — although Joe Duck thinks that Rubin’s presence suggests otherwise — and it is designed to be as open as possible. And that means it is following what I believe to be a universal law, namely: Open wins.

Why Comcast is right to jam BitTorrent

The outrage continues over Comcast’s jamming of BitTorrent and other traffic on its cable network in the U.S. The company has tried to clarify its position by saying that it doesn’t block BitTorrent traffic, it merely “delays” it (and apparently some other traffic as well). As James Robertson and Cynthia Brumfield have pointed out, part of the problem is that Comcast isn’t being very forthcoming about what it is doing at all — in part because the company says it is afraid that providing too much detail will allow BitTorrent users to find a way around the network “shaping.”

I know that the popular position is to slam Comcast for telling users what to do with their network bandwidth, and I know my instinct is the same whenever my ISP talks about BitTorrent or bandwidth caps. But like most ISPs — and cellular carriers — Comcast has a “terms of service” agreement that allows it to restrict what users do with their accounts, so that whatever they’re doing doesn’t impact on others using the network. That’s a fact of life.

The big issue for ISPs is that p2p apps like Skype, Joost and BitTorrent can consume a huge amount of bandwidth. According to some estimates, 10 BitTorrent users on a network node can double the delays that other users experience — and as much as 60 per cent of the traffic on some networks is BitTorrent-related. That may not be a problem for BitTorrent users, but it could severely impact those using other applications on the same network.

Obviously it would be better if ISPs like Comcast or Rogers built out their networks to provide more bandwidth, and it would also be better if there were more competition in the Internet access business. But it’s hard to blame Comcast or anyone else for trying to make sure all of their customers get the service they deserve. Now if only the company would come out and say so.

Apple: What happened to thinking different?

picture-134.jpg Hats off to Erick Schoenfeld — ex of Business 2.0, and now the Numero Duo over at TechCrunch — for his post about Apple and the iPhone. At the risk of getting flamed again (or having my server melt down from the Digg-storm), I have to say that I think he has put his finger on one of the main things that bothers me about the whole iPhone/iBrick episode: namely, that by locking down its device and crippling it when anyone messes with it, Apple is acting just like every other phone company and device company. That is likely to come as a disappointment for many Apple fans — or at least those who believed that the phrase “Think different” was more than just a marketing slogan. As Erick puts it:

Apple, of course, is free to try to lock in customers to its partner AT&T and to control what software will work on the phone. That’s just the way the cell phone business works. Right? It’s all about customer lock-in and reducing churn.

More than one commenter on my previous Apple post made the exact same point: Why should we criticize Apple for cutting off that guy’s Internet access because he was uploading code from his iTouch? Why should we give Steve-O a hard time just because Apple wants to control what people do with his phone? After all, that’s what companies do.

The only problem with all of that (as some other commenters on my earlier Apple post pointed out) is that I think people have grown used to the idea of Apple as a different kind of company — the company that makes things easier to use, not harder; the one that actually cares what people want and tries to give it to them. Was that idea just an illusion?

Nick Carr says it’s because Steve sees Apple products as works of art, and doesn’t want people to mess with them, which I think is probably pretty close to the mark. According to the accounts I’ve read of Apple’s birth, he didn’t want to let people fiddle with the first Apple PCs either.

Update:

Peter Ha has some videos that also make the point over at CrunchGear.

Warning: bitchy Canadian telecom post

It’s all well and good that our dollar officially hit parity with the U.S. greenback today, but it sure would be nice if we could get something approaching real competition in the mobile telecom market in Canada. Then maybe certain carriers who shall remain nameless — but whose names start with a B and rhyme with “hell” — wouldn’t be able to pull stuff like this.

As Tony notes, and Michael Geist also describes here, Bell is promoting a $75-a-month “unlimited” data plan that uses a wireless PC card — but it has some pretty ridiculous restrictions. Not only does it have an umbrella clause that says you can’t use your connection in a way that “consumes excessive network capacity in Bell’s reasonable opinion,” but it also tells you what you can’t do with your connection, and that includes:

“multi-media streaming, voice over Internet protocol or any other application which uses excessive network capacity that is not made available to you by Bell [or is used to] operate an email, web, news, chat or other service.”

So you can’t use it to stream video, do VOIP or even run a chat server. What the hell else are you supposed to do with it? I’m surprised they didn’t throw file-sharing in there too — but that’s probably included in the definition of a “web service.” Tony says that there are also reports that this so-called “unlimited” data plan is capped at 250 megabytes. Classic.

Alec Saunders has been down the limited/unlimited road before, and it isn’t something that is confined to Canadian carriers either, as Mike Masnick notes over at Techdirt. But still — come on.

Does Skype outage betray flaws in P2P?

At last, the folks at Skype have provided us with a half-decent explanation of what happened when the peer-to-peer telephone service went dark for almost two full days last week. Unfortunately for Skype, it’s not a very favourable one. The company does its best to blame the service outage on Microsoft, saying the disruption was triggered by a massive wave of restarts by users whose computers had downloaded routine updates from Microsoft:

“The disruption was triggered by a massive restart of our users’ computers across the globe within a very short timeframe as they re-booted after receiving a routine set of patches through Windows Update. The high number of restarts affected Skype’s network resources.”

logo_skype.jpgBut the real culprit seems to be the company’s own software, which handles the provisioning of services across millions of individual PCs. Apparently the simultaneous restarts led to a wave of login requests and that — combined with a flaw in Skype’s network-management software — caused the failure:

“This caused a flood of log-in requests, which, combined with the lack of peer-to-peer network resources, prompted a chain reaction that had a critical impact.

Normally Skype’s peer-to-peer network has an inbuilt ability to self-heal, however, this event revealed a previously unseen software bug within the network resource allocation algorithm which prevented the self-healing function from working quickly.”

The chief technology officer of SightSpeed argues that the event Skype experienced shows the flaws in its P2P network structure. Instead of relying on its own servers, Skype’s network uses some of its users’ individual PCs as “SuperNodes” to handle the traffic flow of data. The loss of any significant number of those SuperNodes, he argues, can cause a substantial disruption.

It should be noted that SightSpeed — which uses a P2P network structure with central servers instead of SuperNodes — is a competitor of Skype’s, and is offering any disgruntled Skype users a special trial of its premium services. And as one commenter on the post notes, SightSpeed’s model is also far from immune to outages, and arguably less robust because it depends on the company’s servers alone to handle traffic.

Nevertheless, the outage has no doubt caused more than one Skype user to wonder about the network that the service is based on. There is a comment <a href="http://gigaom.com/2007/08/16/skype-groans-sipphone-gains/#comment-456134“>on one of Om Malik’s posts that appears to be from someone with knowledge of the Skype SuperNode problem.