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Apple plays to my interests this morning with a set of new products and upgrades tied into wireless data: The news out of San Francisco--where I'm on site--is that Apple is rather keen on Wi-Fi. The company announced several upgrades and new products that take advantage of a lack of wires.
The iPhone location update: The iPhone can now figure out your location by triangulating either the location of nearby cell towers or by fishing around for WI-Fi signals. The cell-tower system uses information from Google, which also provides the map data. Wi-Fi location details come from Skyhook Wireless, a firm I've tracked for years. Because the iPhone can make a connection over either EDGE or Wi-Fi, Skyhook confirmed for me that the iPhone can take its snapshot of the signals around it and transmit that to their servers over either Wi-Fi or EDGE. When connected to a Wi-Fi network, the query can go over Wi-Fi, of course, but could be coupled for better results with cell radio sniffing, too. The iPod touch also gets this Maps improvement, along with a handful of other additions, as a $20 upgrade for existing users; it has to be connected to a Wi-Fi network with Internet access to provide a location, however.
Time Capsule: Apple has scored the much coveted double-win on backups here, by coupling an operating system based backup feature (Time Machine) with a network-attached storage system that requires no configuration. Time Capsule incorporates a full AirPort Extreme Base Station (with 802.11n) with an internal 500 GB or 1 TB hard drive for $299 or $499, respectively. The base station is $179 when purchased by itself. A home network could have one of these puppies and accomplish several related tasks. Backup is for Mac OS X 10.5 (Leopard) only, which is a shame, but Apple would like people to upgrade to Leopard ($129) or buy new computers, so one can't precisely blame them.
MacBook Air: The "Air" refers to the lack of connections on this starting-at-$1,799 3 lb, high-performance laptop with a 13.3-inch screen, 80 GB drive, and 2 GB RAM. The MacBook Air has very few connections: there's a USB port, along with a mini-DVI connector and headphone jack, hidden behind a latch, but there's no FireWire (IEEE 1394), no optical drive, and no Ethernet jack. A external optical drive is $99 or you can use another drive on the network (Windows or Mac) via some special software that mounts the drive without any networking hassles. It includes 802.11n and Bluetooth 2.1+EDR.
Speculation is rampant around early glimpse of Macworld Expo banners: The banners (normally not seen until after the keynote) read "There's something in the air," which David Morgenstern speculates could refer to the inclusion of mobile WiMax (which he bucks the trend and calls WiMax Mobile, for some reason). I hesitate to stick my neck on the line, but I think it's unlikely Apple would push mobile WiMax at this point. But I've been wrong before.
Back in 2003, I said that Apple wouldn't introduce 802.11g products at the January Macworld Expo event because 802.11g wasn't yet well baked, and Apple wouldn't expose its customers to months of firmware updates and incompatibility issues with other Wi-Fi adapters and base stations. I was wrong! It took eight months of firmware fixes to get 802.11g just right, but we lived through.
In 2007, I thought it unlikely that despite the presence of what seemed like 802.11n chips in many Intel-based Macintoshes dissected by those interested in the innards that Apple would jump the gun on the standard which was still not clearly settled in its direction. Again, I was wrong: Apple pulled the trigger, and announced its 802.11n product and an activator for most Intel Core 2 Duo based Macs that had shipped to that point. A few days later, the IEEE group voted overwhelmingly to approve the draft of 802.11n that settled the issue as it moves to ratification.
Thus my track record is poor on Apple's wireless plans. Nonetheless, I think WiMax isn't in the cards. Rather, it's more likely for Apple to build in HSPA (high-speed packet access), the GSM evolution standard for 3G. I haven't seen this speculated elsewhere, so I may be totally off base, but here's my logic.
Mobile WiMax isn't yet deployed. With 802.11g and 802.11n, you could buy components from Apple and immediately use the higher speed for your own network. With Mobile WiMax, most Mac owners won't be able to access a network, for which they will have to subscribe or pay usage fees, until mid- to late 2008. People generally resent paying for technology they simply cannot use. Apple would also take a margin hit for including the internal adapter, which isn't in wide production yet.
In that light, HSPA is a more reasonable choice with its few hundred Kbps upstream and several hundred Kpbs downstream average performance. AT&T, its iPhone partner, already has HSPA networks deployed in the U.S.; it's determined to roll them out nationally, although its unclear what areas have the slower UMTS standard--faster than EDGE, slower than HSPA--and which have HSPA. (HSPA is often labled as HSDPA for the 3.6 Mbps or 7.2 Mbps raw "downlink" flavor and HSUPA for the 1.9 Mbps or 5.8 Mbps upstream flavors.)
The 3G iPhone will incorporate HSPA, and thus it would make sense for Apple to not be building in technology that's tied to a rival--Sprint Nextel--to its main and exclusive phone carrier partner.
What's more likely, however, is that the "in the air" has something to do with streaming media, a revised Apple TV, and new content than with a new network standard. But given my 0 for 2 record, you might want to take my opinion with a grain of salt.
Nikon puts new Coolpix S51c on T-Mobile HotSpot network: The $330 Wi-Fi-enabled camera, shipping later this month, comes with six months of free use on T-Mobile HotSpot's U.S. network. The camera has an 8.1-megapixel sensor and 3x optical zoom. The six months begin from the first connect, which has to start before Aug. 31, 2008. These deals simply further emphasize how difficult it is to connect cameras to hotspots, as the cameras lack browsers.
None of Nikon's information explains the down-sampling that will be involved with emailing photos from the camera; it's unlikely that full-resolution images would be transmitted. Further, Nikon's previous software releases required software to be installed to transfer images at full resolution over a local network. The S51c comes with Mac and Windows software, so that's likely still the case.
No Wi-Fi camera has yet been released for the consumer market that simply allows file transfers at full resolution over any network reachable when connected via Wi-Fi, nor full-resolution image transmission. None that I'm aware of include secure file transfer, either, although Nikon says its associated picture service for this and other cameras uses some secure method, not defined.
Even the iPhone, with access to Wi-Fi, and with low-resolution photos, only emails or posts to Web galleries downsampled versions. You have to sync over USB to transfer the full resolution.
Apple introduces the iPhone without the iPhone: The company announced the iPod Touch this morning, including the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store. The new iPod includes Wi-Fi but not EDGE (it's not a cell phone, after all), and lists for $299 for an 8 GB model and $399 for a 16 GB model. There's a Safari browser and some widgets, but no email client. Apple rates the player at 22 hours of audio and 5 hours of video playback per charge. The device will be launched worldwide, shipping in September, CEO Steve Jobs said.
Apple also introduced the iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store, which will be rolled out later this month to iPhones and iPod touch models. The store will sell music only over Wi-Fi, as you might have guessed. This prevents iPhone users from overloading the EDGE network. The limit of music and not video likewise prevents iPhone users from drowning hotspots with multi-gigabyte TV and movie purchases. The iTunes Wi-Fi Music Store allows music previews and purchase. Songs purchased on the iPod Touch are synchronized back to your computer the next time you dock the iPod touch or iPhone. (Apple dropped the iPhone price to $399 for an 8 GB model, a $200 reduction. They eliminated the 4 GB model.)
In a neat bit of co-marketing, if you carry an iPod Touch, iPhone, or a computer with iTunes installed into a Starbucks with T-Mobile HotSpot service, the music player will join a music-purchase-only network that allows you to buy the song you're listening to with a single click. The Starbucks option starts in Seattle and New York in 600 stores Oct. 2, and rolls out from November to March in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago, before spreading to other metro areas and all 5,800 Wi-Fi-equipped Starbucks by 2009. The Starbucks button also lets you see the last 10 songs played, and purchase other music from the Wi-Fi store.
It's a good win for Starbucks, because people with iPods and iPhones don't take up as much real estate as a laptop toter. They also probably don't stay as long, and they're almost certainly more likely to have more hands free to buy drinks and food. I expect that Starbucks will see a real uptick in sales at their initial stores when this features launches. For Apple, the company gets to add out-of-the-home distribution points with no real cost entailed. They'll give a piece of the sale to Starbucks (who will ostensibly give some money to T-Mobile, too). iPod and iPhone owners without home broadband or with slow broadband now have a reason to go to Starbucks.
My prediction has long been that Starbucks and T-Mobile will put in media servers in the stores themselves. Starbucks has tried this before with on-demand disc cutting, and such, but I'm talking about an edge media server that lives in the store and has the few terabytes of most popular music and video. An iPhone or iPod user would make the purchase in the store and receive files at 802.11g speeds (roughly 20 to 25 Mbps), making a 1 GB movie transfer in less than 10 minutes or an album in less than 30 seconds.
At the CES show in January, Ruckus Wireless will demonstrate its streaming media, voice, and data wireless solution with 802.11n incorporated: The company has often trash-talked claims that 802.11n's increased bandwidth produces a natural solution for moving media and integrating many kinds of communication over the same wireless network. They have a point.
While the typical 802.11n network, in the version expected to be certified in spring, will offer 150 Mbps to 300 Mbps of raw speed, and more expensive, later versions will carry 600 Mbps of raw data, these speeds are highly dependent on the amount of available signal reflection, the distance between adjacent receiving clients, and the number of other Wi-Fi networks (new and old) nearby. To achieve the highest rates of speed, each spatial stream has to be fully employed using double-wide, 40 MHz channels. That will be possible intermittently even on the best networks.
Ruckus says that at January's Consumer Electronics Show (CES), they will show a set of devices that incorporates both 802.11n for speed and their proprietary technology that gets good reviews in its 802.11g version for keeping stutter-free video, drop-free voice, and consistent data pumping across a network. They even take shots at 802.11n in this press release, noting that "despite the periodic high bandwidth bursts, delay- or loss-sensitive applications such as streaming video or voice have remained elusive on "Pre-N" implementations."
As with all these systems, the proof will be in deployed home networks, which will likely come through the kind of partnerships the company already has in place with independent telephone companies and other operators that are deploying IPTV and converged services. But with claims of supporting HDTV streams, Ruckus might have a direct-to-consumer offering as well; it just depends how hard it is to uncouple digital media from digital rights management.
Ruckus's 802.11n system will use Atheros chips with a three-by-three array, which the chipmaker claims will offer 300 Mbps physical data rate and 150 to 180 Mbps of real-world throughput. It uses two data streams and three sets of receive and transmit antennas.
I'm still trying to sort this out, but it looks like Haier has signed on to using 802.11n in newer televisions with ultrawideband (UWB) nowhere in sight: In 2004 and then again mid-2005, putative UWB chipmaker Freescale trumpeted test with Chinese electronics and white wares' giant Haier. Last year, they were talking about how Haier would ship an LCD HDTV with UWB embedded, paired with a digital media server with the same wireless technology. These were "expected to be available" in Chinese retail markets in fourth quarter 2005 and in the US in 2006. I can't find any mention of this product having shipped, which isn't surprising given that Freescale partners have not to date shipped a single product bearing the company's UWB chips.
Meanwhile, Metalink announced today that Haier had demonstrated the use of the company's Draft 802.11n chipset in Haier HDTVs; they showed this at the SINOCES show this last week in Qingdao, China. Of course, this is an even more premature announcement than Freescale's last year, because this release doesn't mention any devices that would work with the TV sets, nor is 802.11n anywhere near done, and I doubt a consumer electronics maker would embed a draft standard. Update: Metalink said via email that Metalink and Haier announced in March of this year cooperation on media servers and similar consumer electronics products.
I'm waiting for word from Freescale as to the status of the Haier deal. UWB has seemed the ideal technology for consumer electronics where you want high speeds and very little configuration over short distances. Pair UWB with 802.11n for streaming content around a home as necessary, and you have a great distribution system. UWB and 802.11n have distinct purposes, so it's particularly interesting to see Haier flirting with both or changing dance partners.
The folks at MusicGremlin have pushed out their portable, Wi-Fi-equipped music player with a big splash: Walt Mossberg may have reviewed it--and found a few rough edges in its network support--but I've opted not to run it through its paces at this point for what I think is an important reason.
The Gremlin MG-1000 is a portable music player that comes pre-equipped with a directory of 2 million songs on its 8 GB hard drive. It can use Wi-Fi or a computer connection to download music, with most songs generally available for purchase (most 99 cents), but all songs available to listen to with a monthly $15 subscription. The $300 device can also exchange downloaded music with other peers who are also subscribers. This means that if you're listening to a song someone else wants and you're nearby, they don't have to pull from the Internet, they can pull from you locally as long as they're already permitted to listen to music.
It's sleek and the people behind MusicGremlin are quite brilliant. I saw a prototype of the device about 2 1/2 years ago, and saw the latest iteration at CES in January. I have two review units in hand, in fact. It's the only piece of hardware I've used that has the potential to supplant some of the iPod's cachet and market. I've said since I first saw the prototype that Apple should just up and buy the firm because they need some of the mojo of the Gremlin player to keep the iPod's momentum. But then the iPod just keeps on flying off shelves, so I may not be the best judge of what the consumer entertainment market wants.
But there are two problems for me on the Wi-Fi side: one, a showstopper; the other, just eventually important.
First, the MG-1000 can't connect to a Wi-Fi network using WPA Personal. Because I and all sensible security experts now recommend WPA Personal as a minimum method of securing a home or small-business network, I balk at reviewing a device that requires a security step-down even to test. For home users who leave their networks completely unsecured or use the older WEP thinking it's good enough, well, I worry about you, but this wouldn't be a stumbling block for using MusicGremlin. I castigated Kodak and others for shipping WEP-only devices last year, when even then it seemed rather absurd.
Years after the mandatory requirement of WPA for Wi-Fi certification of adapters and access points, I just can no longer accept a device that can't meet this security bar. The chips and firmware used for embedded devices may lag, but then you have Devicescape giving away their entire security stack for integration on embedded devices running Linux, including not just WPA Personal but WPA Enterprise. There's no good excuse except a lack of development time, and that doesn't justify requiring worse security.
The other issue, which doesn't make the device unusable, is the lack of a partnership with a hotspot aggregator. You can connect to a T-Mobile hotspot if you have a T-Mobile account using a preconfigured setup in the Gremlin player. (There's no special Gremlin rate, either.) But the many, many hotspots that use a gateway page are off limits. This includes the large number of free locations that require use of an account, or a click-through on terms of service. My recent jury duty experience included Wi-Fi that was usable only after clicking a button at the bottom of two pages of legal disclaimers. Only then did ports open up for access.
For a device that's meant to be mobile, I would have thought a hotspot aggregator partnership or an embedded micro-browser with very minimal functionality would be a given. Boingo just open-sourced its hotspot platform and they offer reseller agreements for the hotspots in their network. There are other options, too. Linksys has an upcoming VoIP over Wi-Fi phone that includes a micro-browser and an extensible authentication module for other kinds of log ins.
The second point is not as important as the first, and I hate to criticize a product for what it lacks rather than what it contains. It's a great device, a great service, and I'd like to provide a full review. But I'll wait until the developers catch up the security realities of 2004 and add WPA Personal support.
The EasyShare V610 uses Bluetooth 2.0 for wireless file transfer: The 3 Mbps Bluetooth radio is built in, and accompanying software allows photos to be transferred to a host computer and from there uploaded to Kodak's EasyShare Gallery (formerly Ofoto). The $449 camera has two lenses, like the earlier V570, to provide a remarkable range of optical zoom in a very small form factor (38 to 380mm with a gap between lenses in the short-range zoom from 114 to 130mm). It's a six-megapixel camera, also quite stunning for its 4.5-by-2.25-inch size. It ships in May.
Buried at the bottom of a press release--which is not on Kodak's site yet--is a note that the next model of the EasyShare One, Kodak's Wi-Fi capable camera, will ship this summer with a set of profiles for wireless ISPs, as they call it, which means hotspot networks. They originally shipped the camera with a T-Mobile connection option. The new model will cost $299 with a $99 Wi-Fi card as an option; this is down from the $599 cost of the original, which included Wi-Fi. Confusingly, the first model was supposed to cost $499 with Wi-Fi as an extra, and then Kodak decided it wouldn't release the camera without Wi-Fi. (I reviewed the camera last October.)
I found the EasyShare One to be a great but overpriced camera with irritating Wi-Fi connectivity options because of the many steps, frequent slow reconnections, and lack of WPA security. Kodak slipped out a firmware upgrade at some point (no date is on the upgrade) that offers WPA Personal and other options. This upgrade was promised for some months ago, so I don't know why they were quiet about releasing it.
Canon's Elph SD430 uses Wi-Fi like a USB cable: Unfortunately, early consumer-priced cameras that include Wi-Fi are either locked to a proprietary service (Kodak) or tied to software that allows image transfers only over a local wireless LAN (Nikon, Canon). I played with Canon's SD430 at CES, and while the $500 camera is small and easy to use, and comes with a USB dongle that works attaches to its $150 dye-sublimation snapshot printer, its use of Wi-Fi isn't superior to a USB cable. In fact, because it requires proprietary, Windows XP-only software from Canon to move images, it's actually less useful than a USB cable, given that so many photo packages and operating systems directly import photos from a host of cameras.
A Canon product specialist at the booth agreed that offering additional transfer choices was basically a matter of firmware; Kodak told me the same thing when I reviewed the EasyShare One a few weeks ago. But could some consumer photographic vendor work with Devicescape to incorporate their compact 802.11 security stack that would have the hooks to offer WPA Enterprise and something like Secure FTP? Secure FTP should be a no brainer hidden in the advanced options.
The first consumer camera that can use Wi-Fi as a medium to transfer images to any of a variety of server destinations will become the camera of choice for a lot of early adopters who want that kind of flexibility.
A Canon PowerShot with built-in Wi-Fi will be launched in December in Japan: Canon showed off Wi-Fi controls without a specific product plan or timetable earlier this year. Since then, Kodak and Nikon have released Wi-Fi-equipped cameras that have distinct drawbacks and quirks in how they transfer files and use Wi-Fi networks.
Canon's first entry will be the Canon PowerShot SD430 Digital Elph Wireless. Elsewhere, it's called the Digital IXUS, according to Engadget. The notes for the camera state that you can only use wireless features with Windows XP SP2.
The camera includes a feature I've suggested to Kodak: auto-transfer as photos are taken. It can even multi-task and allow you to continue to shoot while photos are being transmitted. Windows software can control the camera remotely over Wi-Fi as well. No FTP or other support is mentioned or documented, which is a crying shame.
The camera uses 802.11b and supports WEP and WPA-PSK (TKIP or AES), but only supports WEP for computer-to-computer connections, but it will use AES with its wireless print adapter. It also has USB 2.0.
It's a five megapixel sensor with about a 3x optical zoom. It supports SD cards up to 2 GB in size. It can create 640 by 480 pixel movies at 30 frames per second or smaller movies at 60 fps.
The camera will cost ¥50,000 or about US$435 in Japan. The UK launch will be in January at a cost of £399 or US$712, which seems like too big a spread. In the U.S., it will appear in January for US$499. [link via Engadget]