Mobile Linux

A lot has been written about mobile and embedded device platforms lately (aka. ‘phone’ platforms). Usually articles are about the usual incumbent platforms: Android, IOS, and Windows Phone and the handful of alternatives from e.g. RIM and others. Most of the debate seems to revolve around the question whether IOS will crush Android, or the other way around. Kind of a boring debate that generally involves a lot of fan boys from either camp highlighting this or that feature, the beautiful design, and other stuff.

Recently this three way battle (or two way battle really, depending on your views regarding Windows Phone), has gotten a lot more interesting. However, my in view this ‘war’ was actually concluded nearly a decade ago before it even started and mobile linux won in a very unambiguous way. What is really interesting is how this is changing the market right now.

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Joost and video on demand

Screenshots And Video Of The New Joost

Joost has announced that they are changing the way their service works. Having used it quite a bit, I think this is probably the best thing for them since it was based on a misguided channel/TV metaphore. However, I wonder (along with Techcrunch) what their added value really is. It used to be that p2p seemed like it was the only way to escape from blocky, tiny videos with low frames per second and audio/video sync problems (aka Real Video, what happened to those guys anyway?).

Just last week I was looking at some videos on Vimeo and noticed that they have streaming HD now. Like Youtube, it starts streaming right away. Unlike Youtube, the video is sharp, full screen, high resolution, and mostly free from severe compression artifacts. In other words, they seem to have figured out a way to push large amounts of data to me cost effectively. I didn’t measure it but I estimate I was getting around 1mbps data from them at least.

Doing this on a large scale used to be really expensive. However, in recent years, content delivery networks (CDNs) have emerged that can cost effectively deliver large downloads to massive amounts of users. A CDN is actually similar to p2p. Essentially it involves ensuring you have a servers+bandwidth in every major provider network and keeping these servers in sync. Bandwidth inside a provider network is a lot easier to get. For providers the benefit is that they don’t need to use expensives bit pipes from other providers to get the content to you. So as long as they don’t run out of local bandwidth (of which they have plenty), they will prefer this. Also with less hops to the user, it is a lot easier to ensure there is actually enough bandwidth to the user. Essentially, this brings the best features of p2p to web streaming and makes Joost more or less redundant. Although arguably, they still have a slight cost advantage here due to their reliance on a CDN (this type of service of course costs money).

There are now several flash based streaming sites that use a CDN. What these services have in common is crappy content. There’s only so much amateur, 3 minute video fragments I can take. Also, 3 minute “commercial” fragments of full content normally broadcasted on really obscure tv channels in the middle of the night is hardly compelling. The reason for this is copyright legislation and a systematic ignoring of users outside the USA by media corporations.

Joost, flawed as it was, actually has some okish content hidden inside it. I quite enjoyed watching episodes of Lexx (an obscure but fun Canadian SF series from the nineties) and also a few full feature kung fu movies from the seventies as well as a few documentaries. I wouldn’t pay for any of that but if you are bored, it’s at least a way to pass some time. But Joost never managed to convince media corporations to provide premium content. They still haven’t solved that problem.

If you live inside the US, life is good, apparently. There’s Apple TV, Amazon, Hulu, and a few others like netflix offering massive amounts of good quality pay per view type HD content for download, and in some cases even streaming. Some of these services are ad supported, some of them are subscription based. Joost won’t stand a chance in that market.

However, for about 5.8 billion people outside the US, life is not so good. Here in Finland there are only a handful of video on demand companies whose offerings suck big time comparatively. Additionally, their UI is in Finnish which makes it extremely hard for me to use them or even to figure out what they are trying to offer me. The US based ones won’t deliver content outside the US because that requires separate deals with media companies for each country. In the US, one deal helps you reach a population of around 250 million users. In europe, countries are a lot smaller. My understanding is that to some extent this type of services is now also available in the UK and Germany, which are relatively large countries.

Finland has only 5 million inhabitants.In other words, no content for me. So, if I want to see a movie, I can hope one of the pay per view TV channels broadcasts it (I don’t have a subscription though); buy the DVD; go to the cinema; or hope one of the handful of local TV stations broadcasts something worth watching.

Miro

Miro, formerly known as the democracy player, is an attempt to liberate internet TV from its verticals (e.g. Joost). Essentially it is a video feed browser built on Mozilla technology; an open source media player (VLC) and bittorrent. What that means is that when you subscribe to feeds, Miro tries to download new items for you. The idea is to keep it open in the background and Miro will take care of making sure there is something to watch when you feel like it.

From the Miro website:

And finally, I have a favor to ask — if you think Miro is great, share it with someone.

No problem.

I installed Miro two weeks ago (to compensate for the loss of analogue channels on my TV, which I now fixed with a DVB-C set top box) and despite some rough edges with playing back content, the overall user experience is very compelling. Also the fact that there are now 2000+ video streams to choose from makes the experience quite nice. I found some interesting feeds with copyright free material from before WW II which despite the age is quite fun to watch. It won’t replace my TV but it is a nice addition.

About the rough edges (in order of priority):

  • Sometimes the video won’t show up and all I see is a black screen in the background. Solution: open the file in media player classic.
  • Sound quality: VLC by default does not dither sound to 24 bit, which causes all sorts of nasty sound artefacts for some files. Playing the same files in media player classic, which I have configured to dither to 24 bit, the problem goes away.
  • There are some stability issues.
  • Miro can hog bandwidth and ends up crippling my broadband connection because there is not enough bandwidth left for other applications. A throttle setting will be needed to fix that.

Despite these issues, playing with Miro is quite fun and technically it is just an alpha product at this stage so it is still quite excusable. One thing I’d like to see fixed is better integration with existing media players. Not being able to configure the media playing properly means that there is severe quality issues that would be easy to fix if I had access to the underlying media player configuration. Also, I have media player classic around for a good reason: it works very well and I really like it. VLC is not so good in my experience and I prefer not to have to use it.

Digiboksi

Digiboksi is Finglish for DVB-C set top box. I bought one on saturday and had it replaced today by a different one.

Basically the story is that Finland is replacing good old analogue TV with digital tv. Terrestial analogue signal went dark a few months ago. A few weeks ago the ‘interesting’ channels (i.e. the ones in english) disappeared from the cable and the rest will follow in February.

So, I went to the shop for a digiboksi. Since I barely watch TV, I just wanted something that was cheap & something that worked. So I pretty much randomly selected the Samsung DCB-B263Z in the shop (hey it was black, matches my other equipment). Normally I’d do some research on the internet for such a purchase. Unfortunately this product seems to be specialized for the Finnish market so most info available seems in Finnish. Hence the randomness.

So I bought it, plugged it in and about ten minutes later was watching TV. I was quite pleased with the picture quality. The UI seemed nice too. Then it crashed. WTF! Anyway, to keep this short: it is a known issue, basically the shops are selling products with broken software. Sigh. So, after about 4 crashes in less than 24 hours, I went back to the shop today and mentioned the word crash. No need for further explanation. Apparently, lots of people are bringing these things back (I know at least one other guy). Five minutes later I walked out with a Handan 3400.

So far it seems reasonably well behaved though the picture quality is slightly less nice than the samsung (was a bit smoother and crispier). I managed to improve it slightly by disabling the built in contrast. If this one crashes as well, I’ll try another brand.

Joost

I spent some time playing with Joost, the streaming video/online TV thingy from the makers of Skype and Kazaa. There’s a lot to like about it conceptually. I live in Helsinki where basically public television sucks and the commercial cable packages suck slightly less. So to me Joost is pretty compelling: major content publishers lining up to join and hassle free streaming straight to my screen. So I signed up via the “send me an invite” bullshit feature on the website. It’s just an ordinary web registration form except in this case you have to do it twice. Once to get the invite and then another time to get a Joost username (“duh! didn’t I just tell you who I was?!”). I reactivated my good old Yahoo mail address for the occasion. No way I’m giving my primary email address to these guys.

The user interface seems quite nice even though it is a bit unconventional. It launches into full screen and has a menu system with which you can select channels and programs. The program has no network settings menu, it either works or it doesn’t. This is probably the kind of simplicity end users need. However, from experience I know that things sometimes don’t work and when that happens it is nice if the UI informs you what the hell is going on. Things like whether it is actually connected or how many bytes are flowing to and from me are not represented in the UI. You could stare at a black screen forever (with the default wobbly screensaver thingy in the background) if for some reason you would be disconnected. This happened a couple of times and it’s quite annoying. Pretending everyting is ok is not the same as a usable experience.

Aside from this, the UI is pretty easy to figure out. I’m not sure I like the whole channels and programs paradigm. I guess this is what couch potatoes understand. The problem is that there is a huge and growing number of channels which each can have numerous programs. You have to first select and add a channel and then you can browse its programs and select one. Since there’s a lot to choose from it takes some time to find something. And scrolling through huge lists gets old pretty quick. The UI does not really support people in doing that. I would prefer to have a UI more like an RSS reader.

Technically the experience is not as smooth as it should/could be. But then, this is a beta and probably the experience will improve as the number of users skyrockets, as it will no doubt do when this goes public. Anyway, I found that a great number of channels simply don’t play at all or seem to have a problem getting the bytes to my machine. It seems that everything except the most popular stuff is likely to not work. No doubt this is due to the fact that there are less peers with that content. I have a 1 Mbit connection (roughly 100KB/s download and 30-40 KB/s upload), which should be enough although it probably is the bare minimum. My impression is that most content is not streamed at that rate anyway. Additional problem is that Welho, my finnish cable provider, sucks big time and that the motorola modem I use to connect to them is complete crap as well. So I’m not ready to point the finger at Joost for all network problems I have. Nevertheless, the difference between some stuff working just fine and some stuff not working at all I cannot explain using my network situation.

The most annoying thing about Joost is no doubt the fact that it inserts commercials before, after and even during the streaming. Commercials suck and there seems no way around them other than not using Joost. If Joost fails, it will be because of the fact that users reject the commercial content interrupting the crappy other content. They’ll have to be very careful with this. There’s just no way I’m going to sit through commercials when my browser is one alt+tab away. Also if the content is crap, I might end up not alt tabbing back. I’ve explored the channels on offering a bit and am not really impressed so far. Seems to be on a par with Zune which doesn’t have that much good content either.

Antec SmartPower 2.0 500 Watt review

What happened yesterday was that I got home on monday and tried to restore the pc from standby (where it had been since friday morning). I then went into the kitchen to get some food and when I came back it was off. So I powered it again and it went through a weird on off cycle that kept repeating until I switched off the powersupply with its button. I then unplugged and replugged powercable and checked everything else and powered on. Same thing. By this point I was quite certain the powersupply was toast and removed it from the case. I spent the rest of the evening reading a book and watching some TV, things I normally don’t do that often.

Today I bought a Antec SmartPower 2.0 500 Watt unit. It seems my first ever attempt at connecting it to various components was successful. At least, it’s been running for fifteen minutes now (while writing this) and everything seems OK. Quite a relief that everything is working again. I’ve so far shied away from constructing my own PCs since I prefer to get the thing pre-assembled, tested and with warranty. The latter had expired and the company that did the assembling no longer exists despite doing a fine job (PC has been stable for over a year until the hardware failed). So, I had no choice but to get off my ass and fix things myself.

Connecting things is not that hard as long as you know what is connected to what in the first place. This is reasonably fool proof since connectors come in various shapes that line up nicely in only one way. To make sure I wouldn’t miss anything, I shot a few pictures of the internals of my PC before disconnecting everything. I consulted these pictures a few times to ensure everything was connected correctly during the whole procedure. So, I guess that counts as useful advice for people in a similar situation. Disconnecting things was a bit cumbersome since the case is full of sharp bits and pieces that tend to get in the way when you try to unplug stuff. My right hand has a few scratches but otherwise, I’m fine.

The package the new unit came in was quite nice, for a power supply. It has two useful features: modular cables and a two fans for improved cooling of the unit and the rest of the machine. The modular cables connect to four sockets on the unit. Several cables are provided with the package for all the usual stuff. The nice thing about this is that it allows you to minimize the amount of cable and it also provides some flexibility with respect to how you route the cables. I used three of the four sockets. One for the video card (dedicated PCI Extreme cable provided), one for the sata drive and one with three connectors which I used for the dvd burner, the frontside of the casing (power button and some other stuff) and the floppy drive, which I’ve never actually used. Having a dedicated cable for the video card seems useful since it is a nvidia 7800 card. These are notorious for sucking a lot of power (hence the 500 watt) and having a dedicated cable ensures it doesn’t have to share the cable with other devices (which presumably helps keeping things stable).

Despite the two fans, noise is quite ok (about the same as before) since only the internal fan is active most of the time. Besides, my cpu fan and video card fan can be quite noisy too. I haven’t heard the second one yet but I’m sure I will once I do some gaming. If you are looking for noise free, buy another unit but otherwise things are quite alright. The reason I chose this one was because it had a nice package, more or less the same specs and the above mentioned nice features. There’s not much more to it. Without access to a PC I sort of omitted my usual routine of doing elaborate comparison of various alternatives and trusted the nice people at Verkkokauppa to put the good stuff on the top shelf. Besides, this was one of the few 500 watt units they had.

I love this country

An event I’ve ignored for years and tactically zapped around on the TV is the eurovision song festival. When I was in Sweden, Sweden happened to win it (1999?). I heard about this while partying in BÃ¥gen, a very lousy night club in Ronneby. This year, I might keep an eye on the TV because this guy and his friends are going to represent Finland at this years edition. Wow ….! I hope they win :-).

Moving time

I’m not much into life logging, I prefer to stick to technology :-). But under the circumstances, I’ll make an exception.

As you may know, I recently got a job as a research engineer at the Nokia Research Center in Helsinki. That means I am going to leave Nijmegen and the Netherlands soon. Soon as in next week. It’s been a bit more than five years since I moved back to NL from Sweden and now I’ll move to Finland. Just like the previous time indefinately, meaning that I’ll move back when I feel like moving back again.

I had my last day at GX last wednesday. Currently I am packing some stuff and tonight there will be drinks at Maxim (a cafe in Nijmegen) for my friends and colleagues. Tomorrow, after the hangover becomes tolerable, I’ll visit my parents in Breda and say hello to my sister. Then Monday the moving people will pack & pick up my stuff and hopefully deliver it to the apartment I will hopefully find real soon after I get to Helsinki, which is on Tuesday.

On a side note, ever since I got the strange idea of moving to Finland I’ve frequently been humming/whistling/etc. the Finland song:

Finland, Finland, Finland,
The country where I want to be,
Pony trekking or camping,
Or just watching TV.
Finland, Finland, Finland.
It's the country for me.

You're so near to Russia,
So far from Japan,
Quite a long way from Cairo,
Lots of miles from Vietnam.

Finland, Finland, Finland,
The country where I want to be,
Eating breakfast or dinner,
Or snack lunch in the hall.
Finland, Finland, Finland.
Finland has it all.

You're so sadly neglected
And often ignored,
A poor second to Belgium,
When going abroad.

Finland, Finland, Finland,
The country where I quite want to be,
Your mountains so lofty,
Your treetops so tall.
Finland, Finland, Finland.
Finland has it all.

All together, Finland fans!
Finland, Finland, Finland,
The country where I quite want to be,
Your mountains so lofty,
Your treetops so tall.
Finland, Finland, Finland.
Finland has it all.

Finland has it all.

(Monthy Python). Great song.

For those I won’t see anymore: it was nice knowing you and maybe we’ll meet again.

The coming paradigm shift in TV broadcasting

The coming paradigm shift in TV broadcasting
The coming paradigm shift in TV broadcasting

This article comments on Apple’s latest move to offer video content through their iTunes and how this is a logical and inevitable move with some far ranging effects.

In this blog post I abstract from this and apply it to the whole telecommunications, media and IT industry. Some things are about to change in this economically important sector.

It’s understandable they put up a fight. The telecommunications sector is built on the notion that exchanging information (in any form) costs money. The media industry is built on the notion that media needs to be distributed (physically) and that they can charge dollars for that. And finally the IT industry is used to steady income from license fees from software. All these industries may lose a lot of revenue if the rules are changed.

And that’s what’s going on. Apple just changed the rules for the Media industry. This will have a snowball effect. Right now if you want to watch something (movie, the news, tv series, documentary) you need to turn to one of the industry controlled and closely guarded media: cinema, a tv channel, a dvd, etc. Each of these things is a source of revenue to the industry and you pay directly or indirectly for it in all sorts of ways. There’s nothing against that in principle they offer access to scarce resources and people pay a market price for access.

Their problem is that Apple just made these resources a lot less scarce. Distribution through the internet of content is cheap and will become even cheaper. Technology will gradually erode the cost to close to 0$. There’s plenty of bandwidth available and an increasing amount of people has what I call a critical amount of bandwith: enough bandwidth to make streaming high definition audio and video feasible & desirable.

Apple is tapping into this by letting their users access content over the internet through their iTunes store and by providing the necessary hardware and software to them. That’s a small change and not at all revolutionary. But it will teach people an important lesson: hey I can watch desperate housewives (one of the offerings used to commercialize the new itunes ability) whenever I want, wherever I want and I don’t need to buy the dvd, I don’t need to turn on the tv on a specific time and I don’t need to watch the commercial blocks. The next steps are obvious and imminent: why store the desperate housewives episode on an ipod when you can just stream it? Mobile networks will soon mature enough to reach the same critical bandwidth as home users are currently enjoying on their home networks.

That means that anytime, anywhere you can start streaming anything to your mobile phone, your pda, your ipod, your tv that anyone bothers to put online. Inevitably this will replace all existing forms of content distributions. Why tune to a channel to view some program when you can just start streaming the program whenever you want, skip to any part you want and pause it whenever you want, etc?

Apple just gave the industry a little reality check, just like they did when they kick started online music sales a few years ago: if the industry doesn’t move, somebody else will. Over the next few months, one after the other media company will either join apple or similar iniatives from e.g. microsoft. Once this happens the pressure will be on and the market will do its work. Better content leads to more online revenue, at the cost of traditional revenue. The huge gap between cost of content production and content distribution and the market price (which is obscene) will start to come under pressure as well. At some point in the near future the market model will change from paid downloads to paid streams (subscription, per view, etc).

This will put an end to tv networks as we know them. They are content distributers and we don’t need them anymore.

The same is going on in the telecommunications sector where revenue used to come from telephony and related services. IP telephony has eliminated the need for paid telephone services since it works just fine over a modest internet connection. If you have umts phone, it is technically possible to use the internet for IP telephony so why exactly are we paying 30 cents per minute for a local phone call? Some mobile networks already offer fixed price bandwidth (expensive though). The operators on these networks get their revenue from a number of services, all of which with the exception of the network connection are technically possible with already available software packages that use the connection. People think it’s normal to pay 25 cent for the delivery of a 160 character message to a cell phone (SMS). If those two cellphones are umts phones and run msn, icq, aim, jabber or any of the other IM network clients you can send unlimited messages to anyone freely. Surprisingly few people have figured this out but they will. These changes are already happening and will kill much of the telecom industry as we know it. A mobile phone is nothing else than a general purpose computer with a umts modem or similar wireless connection and some general purpose software. The form factor is irrelevant.

Which brings us to the software industry because nothing of the above requires software with a pricetag greater than 0$. All of the services mentioned above can be implemented using existing, open source software. In fact oss developers have already done most of the work and created OSS media centers, video & audio codecs, communication software, real time operating systems and any other kind of software component you could possibly need to implement any of the services mentioned in this document. It’s just a matter of putting together the components.

So what remains is bandwidth, hardware and intellectual property. Any revenue not coming directly from these, will vaporize in the next few decades. The remaining revenue will still be sizable but probably less than the industry is used today. 50$ for a dvd now is considered normal today. I’d be surprised and disappointed if I was unable to watch star wars III on my mobile phone anywhere, anytime for over 5$ in about ten years. And no way am I going to watch that shit ten times.

My impression is that the whole proces will be slow thanks to the industry resisting any form of progress. It will take some outsiders, like Apple, to change the rules gradually. These outsiders exist and are already changing the rules.

Anamorphic aspect ratio calculator

Anamorphic aspect ratio calculator. I sometimes play movies from my PC to my widescreen TV. Unfortunately the tvout of my Geforce 4 card does not support widescreen. In other words, it sends a signal with a 4:3 aspect
ratio to my tv. Luckily my tv can stretch the image to 16×9. Normally this would result in a flattened picture on the tv, which is not the intention. So suppose you have a cinematic dvd movie (aspect ratio 11:5) and want to play it on the tv. If you just send it to the tv, you’d have a 4:3 picture with enormous black bars ontop. Using the zoom function of the tv it will display fine but you are also not using a significant amount of tv signal so you’re losing precious pixels!

What you can do instead is change the aspect ratio of the movie and let the tv stretch it back to its orginal 11:5 aspect ratio. The new aspect ratio for the film is called the anamorhic aspect ratio and you can
calculate it with this neat little calculator I created. You can enter the results in bsplayer,
which allthough enormously feature rich does not have an anamorphic setting built in (at the moment of writing) and play your movie using the full available resolution and enjoy the extra detail :-).

The jar file can be started by double clicking on it (windows, must have a Java 2 jvm installed of course) or running “java -jar anamorphic.jar” from the commandline. Source code in the form of an eclipse project can be found here.

If this all sounds too nerdy, just download media player classic from sourceforge.net and use the options->pan&scan->scale to 16:9 option to get the same effect.