Pogoplugged

Everyone seems to agree that the outgoing year 2011 was the year of the cloud. Judging by how often the word “cloud” was thrown at us by computer vendors, hosting companies, and service providers, it sounds like the greatest innovation since sliced bread. Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. Cloud computing is not new at all. It has been around since the days of Multics and the ARPANET, at least conceptually. It is neither an invention nor a product, but an application of existing computer technologies, no matter how many companies now try to productise it now. The fuzzy term includes everything from network storage, utility computing, virtual server hosting, to service oriented architectures, typically delivered via the Internet (i.e. the cloud). In fact, the term is so blurry, that even the vendors themselves often disagree what it means, as famously Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle, before his company jumped on the bandwagon.

Pogoplug 2Most people associate the word cloud with file hosting services such as Dropbox, Windows Azure, or Apple’s iCloud. Today, I want to talk about a product that provides an alternative to these network storage services, which provides in my opinion a superior solution. It’s called Pogoplug and it is a box that comes in a flashy pink. The idea is simple enough. You connect this box with your Wifi router on one side and with your storage media on the other side, and voilà, you get networked storage, aka your own “personal cloud” which is accessible on your LAN as well as from outside via the Internet. Besides connecting the box, you have to get an account with pogoplug.com and register your device. Optionally, you can install software that makes the attached storage available on your LAN as an external mass storage device. There are also free apps for iOS and Android that that allow you to access Pogoplug-managed storage from your tablet and/or phone.

Why is this such a clever product? Well, for two reasons. First, the Pogoplug is low-cost and easy to use. Second, it provides solutions to multiple problems. Let’s start with the first. The basic Pogoplug device costs 50 USD, and the web account is free. You can plug up to four external hard disks or flash memory sticks into the four USB ports, so one could easily realise four or eight Terabyte total capacity. External hosting is expensive by comparison; for example, a 50 GB Dropbox account costs 10 USD per month; with Apple’s iCloud it’s 100 USD per year for the same size. There are cheaper alternatives, such as livedrive.com or justcloud.com, but the annual expense still exceeds the cost of a Pogoplug device. What’s the catch? The download speed via Internet is limited to the upload speed of your Internet connection, which for the average DSL user is typically lower than the access speed of an external file storage service. Filling the Pogoplug devices with data, on the other hand, is much faster, because you can access the drives locally.

Now, about the multiple solutions aspect. What I like about the Pogoplug device is that I can reuse my external backup disks as network storage. I work with redundant pairs of disks, whereas one disk is plugged into the Pogoplug at all times and the other disk is used to create backups from my computers. In the second step, I mount the Pogoplug to my Linux workstation and synchronise the online storage with the fresh backups via rsync. In addition, I use my Pogoplug as a household NAS and media server. This comes in very handy for viewing my photo library on a tablet, or for streaming audio from my music collection to my phone. As long as I stay within my house/garden’s Wifi range, the data transfer happens at Wifi speed. Streaming movies is a little trickier. Usually I download movies from the Pogoplug to the mobile device before viewing.

In summary, the product offers a miniature file server for local access via LAN/Wifi and remote access via Internet plus some streaming services. Authentication service is provided by the pogoplug.com web server. As of late, you also get 5GB free cloud storage space externally hosted by pogoplug.com, which is likewise accessible via mobile apps and can even be mounted into your local network. The pogoplug device itself consumes only 5W, less than most NAS or mini PC servers. Obviously, the power consumption increases when connected USB hard disks draw power from it, so the most energy-efficient solution is probably to use either flash memory sticks or USB-powered disks that stop spinning in idle mode. Additionally, the Pogoplug device can be deployed as a LAN print server. Those who are comfortable with Unix administration and scripting can program the Pogoplug device to do even more.

Website: www.pogoplug.com

Specifications:
1.2GHz ARM CPU with 256MB RAM plus 512MB Flash storage,
4 x USB2 ports, 1 x 10/100/1000Mbps Ethernet port, integrated DC power supply
Supported Filesystems: NTFS, FAT32, Mac OS, Extended Journaled and non-Journaled (HFS+), EXT-2/EXT-3
Supported Browsers: Safari, Firefox 3, IE7, IE8, Chrome
Supported AV File Formats: H.264, MP4, AVI with motion JPEG, MP3

Android versus IOs

IOs vs. Android

The heydays of the personal computer are over. The fastest growth is not in the traditional PC segment any longer, but in tablet computers and mobile devices. The technological advances in this field have been phenomenal during the past few years. When I attempted an outlook into the mobile future four years ago in this blog entry, I had a time frame of ten years in mind. But it seems that the technology enabling the described functionality is already available.

I got my last mobile gadget in 2008 which -being based on Windows Mobile 6- was outdated only a year later. Though I was determined to keep the phone as long as possible, it gave up its ghost last month, after little more than three years. First, the power button stopped working and then the audio failed. Multiple organ failure, so to speak. The time for an upgrade had come. Since I promised my wife an iPad for her birthday, I got to buy two gadgets at the same time, an IOs-based IPad 2 tablet and an Android-based Samsung Galaxy S2 smartphone. Of course, these are not mere consumer items for me, but I am interested in studying and evaluating the available software development tools.

At this time, app development for either platform does not look like a lucrative proposition per se, unless one has access to marketing channels that enable economy of scales. However, it may be worthwhile to acquire the technical know-how nevertheless. For me, mobile app development is interesting, because it can be used to leverage existing web services and server applications. People want to use web-based services on the go with their mobile devices. The demand in this area is growing rapidly and it's probably just a question of time until proprietary corporate applications go in the same direction.

I have to admit that I am more drawn towards the Android platform, not just because the SDK is Java-based, but because it is an open platform. Apple currently has a unique position in the market as innovator and technology leader, but I doubt that the company can sustain its dominance in the long run. Aggressive vendor-lock might have worked for Microsoft in the nineties, but Apple's exclusionist strategies are more likely to annoy people. They definitely annoyed me. While I consider the absence of a file manager and Flash support a minor disadvantage on the iPad, the big pain points are iTunes and the lack of seamless data exchange.

I can connect my Android phone to my PC and fill it with music, video clips, photos, or whatever I desire using a simple USB file-level utility. On the iPad, I am forced to use a synchronization process controlled by iTunes, and since the iTunes software is not available for Linux, I have to shovel my data to a Windows PC first, just like in the bad old days of Microsoft ActiveSync. In addition, iTunes dictates what formats it is willing to accept. The height of my vexation, however, was reached when I found that I cannot register with the Apple store unless I submit my credit card data, even though I did not intend to buy anything at the time. Since the iPad is totally dependent on the app store for software updates, I grudgingly complied, but it definitely left the unpleasant impression that Apple is grabbing for my purse prematurely.

Fortunately, the iPad is such a great piece of hardware, that it stands to reason people are putting up with Apples's snappishness for now. It's still one of the best, if not the best tablet PC in the market. To be fair, one must also mention that iTunes has some good points, particularly the iTunes U area, which is a part of the iTunes store where education institutions publish free audio and video lectures. You could probably get a lifetime worth of high quality lectures out of iTunes U, if life were indeed long enough to learn about every imaginable topic.

For precisely this reason, because time is a limited resource, I have decided to take a closer look at Android, before I dabble in any other mobile OS, unless someone convinces me otherwise. As the market for smartphones and tablet OS is still dynamic and continues to evolve, it would be too early to draw final conclusions.

The mighty paper UI

Supermarket

I went shopping last weekend, and since my capacity for remembering things is slowly degrading (sigh) I often make a shopping list when I have to buy more than 500 items. Okay, maybe that's a bit exaggerated. I mean 50 items. Alright, alright, still exaggerated. I begin to consider a shopping list when I have more than 5 items to buy and I definitely make one if there are more than 10. So, I'm on my way with my shopping list, which -befitting my rank as a software engineer- was stored on my smart phone. Just a few years ago, this might have been considered geeky or eccentric, but nowadays smart phones are so common that it hardly catches anyone's eye. I frequently take notes on my phone, for the simple reason that I have it always with me, and it's often closer than a notepad or a diary.

So there I was in the supermarket, having to check the contents of the shopping cart against my list. No problem, of course. Take phone out pocket and switch the display on to show the main screen (2 sec). Tap on main screen to show launcher window (1 sec). Drag launcher window contents with finger to scroll to memo pad application (1 sec). Open memo pad application (1 sec). Locate shopping list on application menu and tap on it (1 sec). Mind you, that's an optimistic estimation, because something might run more sluggishly than usual. For example, the phone might have discovered a Wifi hotspot and thinks it's a great idea to tell me about it. But I don't want Wifi. Now, six seconds doesn't sound too bad, until I noticed the guy next to me. He had a shopping list, too, one written on paper. He took it out of his shirt pocket in less than a second. Swish. Just like that. Han Dynasty technology beating the smart phone.

That's when I realised, there are situations when you can't trump a paper based UI.

Durable Devices

ThinkpadWhile recently perusing a brochure from a local IT mall, I was simultaneously amused and impressed to see that Lenovo Thinkpad computers are now being advertised as "military grade" laptops. Apparently this goes back to a recent press release by Lenovo announcing that its laptops have met military specs for semi-rugged computing. Having owned a Thinkpad for five years, I think I understand, because we have sort of "semi-rugged" computing conditions in our family, kindly provided by our two children, two dogs, and my wife. The Thinkpad runs almost 24/7, playing cartoons for the kids, functioning as a mobile office for my wife, and serving me on occasional field trips, demos, and network tests, while it is downloading files at night time. It has been shoved and pushed, stepped on, licked by the doggies (they do love Thinkpads) and various liquids were spilled on it in the course of its life. After five years, I have just replaced the batteries and the hard disk and I expect it to go another few years. You could say, I am quite happy with Thinkpad performance.

Another class of devices that qualifies for rugged deployment are Nokia phones. The picture on the left probably speaks for itself. My wife just replaced this phone after three years of tough service during which the phone spent most time skidding around the dashboard of her car. In addition, it has survived several falls from considerable hight, including a spectacular one at the Mae Sa waterfall in Chiang Mai, and the usual wet conditions during the rainy season in Thailand. Finally, Pioneer has my admiration for its exceptionally long-lived optical drives. I recently replaced my Pioneer DVD/CD Player after ten years of service without failure or repair. Of course, I bought a new Pioneer player.

iPhony

One doesn't need to be a top-class industry analyst to notice that the sales of smart phones is currently exploding. These devices are simply everywhere. Shops are plastered with iPhones and Android phones. The word is that suppliers and manufacturers have difficulties coping with demand. Good times for smartphone makers, I suppose…

Although I guess that Android will grab the larger market share in the long run, the Apple iPhone has presently the edge. Apple is clearly the leader, not only in sales, but more importantly in design and technology, as well as in being the most expensive. And what do the other competitors do? Follow the leader, of course.

As a consequence, one can find a growing number of "i-phony" applications that make your device look like an iPhone. The must have ingredients are: 1) jewel case look – shiny multi-coloured icons on a matt black background, 2) finger-tip sized GUI elements (retire your stylus), and 3) sliding dynamics that allow users to pan and scroll virtual sceens across the display without scroll bars.

The old adage says: "If you can't make it, fake it." If you happen to own a device with an aging operating system, such as Symbian or Windows Mobile, there are ways to jazz up your phone without shelling out half a month's salary for a new smart phone. SPB's Mobile Shell 3.5, for example, will give your Pocket PC or phone a new coat of paint. It can't magically transform your device into an iPhone, but it's as "i-phony" as it gets without actually copying the Apple look.