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Five Hundred Wi-Fi Networks Walk into a Bar

Posted: 06/08/10 03:23 PM

Glenn Fleishman, author of this post, joined us on today’s show to talk about Apple’s new iPhone. Glenn’s a freelance journalist who specializes in Apple coverage and coverage of Wi-Fi issues.

Steve Jobs is known for being cool but not necessary keeping his cool. At the company’s announcement of the iPhone 4 at the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), he looked a little steamed when demonstrations of the new phone’s higher-density, more realistic display failed when he was unable to load Web pages over Wi-Fi. He asked reporters and conference attendees to turn off their gear to clear the radio frequency (RF) environment enough to make Wi-Fi work.

Was that a failure of the iPhone 4 to work over Wi-Fi, or a failure of Wi-Fi to be robust enough to handle a room of thousands of people? It might be what you think if you read much of the reporting about this network failure.

But that’s not quite what happened. There wasn’t one or two Wi-Fi networks running at the Moscone conference center, but several hundred, all beating each other up. According to InfoWorld’s consultation with an Apple engineer at the event, over 500 networks were in operation at the same time.

How was this possible? Because so many people–likely a huge percentage of press attendees–were carrying cellular routers, like the MiFi. The MiFi picks up a 3G data signal and relies it over Wi-Fi, acting just like a Wi-Fi router. Some people were instead using a 3G modem plugging into a laptop, and using an easily accessible Mac OS X (or, gasp, Windows) feature to share the 3G connection via the laptop’s Wi-Fi card.

There are Wi-Fi networks that have tens of thousands of simultaneous users spread over thousands of routers over a corporate or academic campus. Wi-Fi can handle that. And there are plenty of events at which the host creates a temporary Wi-Fi network with many interconnected routers that can handle hundreds to thousands of devices at once. The Macworld Expo is a notable case: the last time I attended, thousands of iPhones and laptops worked just fine over a unified, well-managed Wi-Fi network that spanned the conference area.

Apple apparently did offer a public Wi-Fi network at the WWDC launch, according to media and attendees I’ve polled. And those who tried it said that network did work initially. But with so much media in the audience, and the history of conference/event Wi-Fi networks having glitches at peak times–with many people liveblogging and uploading photos from the event–those who had MiFis chose to use those instead.

Wi-Fi can cope with a lot of so-called interference, but the protocol wasn’t designed to handle hundreds of overlapping networks in a small space. (Interference is really the limits of a radio to distinguish signals out of noise, not a physical property of radio waves.)

With so many networks in operation, every Wi-Fi device (notably Steve’s demo iPhone 4) try to be polite. If you’re in a crowded room, and hundreds of people are talking at once, no one can be understood. People stop talking and try to listen, but with so many people, it’s unlikely you could actually get enough quiet to make a clear statement. That’s precisely what happens with Wi-Fi.

Wi-Fi relies on the commons: a pool of unlicensed spectrum anyone can use. And individual device must respect the commons, producing no unnecessary interference and accepting as much interference as is generated by other devices.

The metaphor of the commons breaks down in wireless, because one person’s use of it can be invisible, except for interference from other people’s use. That is, imagine a commons of grass for feeding your cows in which you always appear to be alone on the commons with your animals–but as you stand there, the grass disappears, replaced with mud and ordure.

It’s not Novatel Wireless’s fault; they make the MiFi, and it’s a perfectly appropriate device to offer. The problem of this invisible, overlapping commons being fouled is an emergent property. The less people can trust a common shared network, the more they turn to their own, which then, in a vicious cycle, destroys their own network, too.

Comments | Filed Under: apple gf iphone wi-fi wwdc steve jobs

Face Time. Really?

 by John Moe // Posted: 06/08/10 11:27 AM

I’ve been interested in the idea of video phones for a long time. It’s thought of as this thing that only exists on The Jetsons and in the distant future. Jobs even mentioned The Jetsons in the speech yesterday. Jobs also talked about how this feature will change the world as we know it or some such hyperbole. But video phones have been around for DECADES.

The Wikipedia page on them lists the first practical working one being built in 1936 (there are imaginings of them dating back to the 1880s). And various iterations have been built over the decades since and they pretty much all bomb.

Is it because the product is lousy/clunky/expensive? Or do people simply not want to make phone calls while they look at other people? If they did, why doesn’t anyone use the iChat feature on their Macs? For that matter, why didn’t Apple call this iChat for iPhone? It’s not like they’re afraid to use that lower case i. Anyway, here’s Business Insider explaining why Jobs is right and this will revolutionize everything. I’m dubious.

Comments | Filed Under: apple facetime iphone wwdc wi-fi

Eyebrow raisers from the iPhone announcement

 by John Moe // Posted: 06/08/10 11:20 AM

You may have heard a bit about the new iPhone yesterday, considering the news replaced oxygen as the most common thing in the air. Ars Technica has a good run down.

A few surprises I had yesterday:

Where were the computers? - As near as I can figure, Apple still does make home computers. I bought one recently myself. But they weren’t mentioned at all yesterday. No new laptops, no updates to MacBook Air as rumored. Even the iPod got a mention in passing.

Google remains the default browser, Bing also brought on – Apple is going to play this as giving the user the most options, and that’s a fair point. But Apple is very much at war with Google and its increasingly popular Android mobile device platform right now. Jobs praised Bing and Microsoft but did not kick Google off the iPhone or even move it out of number one position. As a result, a handful of MSFT loyalists may switch settings but it’s mostly a Google experience.

Nothing on home entertainment – I get that it was iPhone’s day but I was wondering if we’d hear about a cloud-based iTunes option or a rebrand/relaunch of Apple TV. Nope.

Netflix and the data plans – Jobs announced a free Netflix app (Android’s getting one soon too) which means tons of streaming movies and TV on your iPhone. This is interesting in light of AT&T’s new restricted data plans. You do a lot of Netflixing, that low use plan doesn’t seem to cover you quite as well. Follow the money, my friends. Follow the money.

Comments | Filed Under: apple google iphone microsoft netflix video wwdc

What matters from the WWDC?

 by John Moe // Posted: 06/07/10 12:33 PM

Heck, I’m not sure. But as Jobs talks, I’m going to attempt to update this entry and figure it out.

As I said before, I think what it all might mean to AT&T and people hoping to have good coverage will be significant. But maybe that’s because even though I live exactly halfway between the large cities of Minneapolis and St Paul, I often can’t get phone coverage on my iPhone.

- 8500 native apps for iPad. 225,000 for iPhone.

- 5 million books for iPad downloaded in 65 days.

- You’ll be able to make notes in iPad. Also place bookmarks and read PDFs.

- Jobs defends app store approval process. Not all that convincingly but at least he’s talking about it in public. Doesn’t seem to be addressing controversial apps.

- Netflix coming to iPhone for free this summer.

- Zynga bringing Farmville to iPhone. Scoff at Farmville at your own peril. It’s huge.

- Guitar Hero too. Social/sharing elements being pushed.

- iPhone 4. Looks just like the leaked prototype. Stainless steel all around, glass front. 24% thinner than 3GS. “Integrated antennas for Bluetooth, WiFi, GPS, all the cell stuff.” - ars technica

- iPhone 4 has 4x the pixel display of 3GS. 326 per inch. Human eye, says Jobs, can only perceive 300 so it won’t look like pixels. Brighter and sharper than the 3GS.

- New iPhone is powered by the A4 chip. Same guts as the iPad. Way more battery life as a result.

- Adding a gyroscope for gaming.

- New 5 megapixel camera with better light sensors for low light photography.

- iPhone 4 has built in HD video camera.

- iMovie app for iPhone. Edit movies on same device you shoot them on. Nice editing features. $4.99. Good thing it’s not $5.00, that would be a total ripoff.

- Renaming OS4 as iOS4.

- Google stays the default for search, Bing added as an option. Yahoo still there, adorably.

- iBooks coming to iPhone and iPod Touch (oh yeah, iPods exist).

- New iAds platform. Advertisements integrated into apps so users don’t get kicked out of app and into browser. Pitched as way for app developers to make money producing free/cheap apps. I can see why app developers would like this. Can’t say I dig it as a customer.

- Face Time, a video chat feature. iPhone 4 to iPhone 4, Wifi only.

- iPhone 4 - $199 for 16gb, $299 for 32gb. On sale June 24.

Comments | Filed Under: apple zynga netflix wwdc ipad iphone

Tech News In Brief - 6/7/10

 by John Moe // Posted: 06/07/10 12:20 PM

WWDC - all eyes on Apple as Jobs delivers a big speech and rolls out new ways to take your money.

Foxconn gives raises again

If you can’t beat ‘em, integrate ‘em
, says Yahoo, which hearts Facebook

The iPad Magazine – what’s going on?

HP printers to have their own emails - cute!

U.S. intelligence analyst behind Wikileaks helicopter attack video arrested

Messages from WWII to be digitized

Our brains on the Internet

Comments | Filed Under: wwdc ipad foxconn


 by John Moe // Posted: 06/07/10 11:06 AM

Today’s tech story is pretty much Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference at the Moscone Center in San Francisco. Steve Jobs delivers his keynote address at 12 central, 10am pacific and unless All We Know About The World is wrong, he’ll introduce the new iPhone.

Here’s some more things to look for:
-    Magic Trackpad – Engadget has details on what they say will be a new interface device that will be introduced. Kind of a combination mouse and finger input device. Not sure what it does but that’s what I said about the mouse decades ago.
-    Video Chat – according to many rumors, the front facing camera on the leaked iPhone prototype means video conferencing. So you can look at someone in real time as you talk. Dick Tracy’s wrist watch = realized.
-    AT&T – last week they introduced their new pricing plan and, since Jobs has said he’s not adding new carriers any time soon, you have to think that those pricing plans were at least partially informed by what’s going to happen today. A lot of people adopting video conferencing adds a lot more traffic to AT&T’s network so maybe more people move to the more expensive plan or pay the (reasonably priced) overages. Not sure that’s what it will mean but I can’t imagine AT&T wants to lose money. It’s also possible that the rate cut is just AT&T trying to get more customers in anticipation of losing exclusivity in the not too distant future.
-    Free version of Mobile Me? A cool but underused service that lets you sync multiple devices and gives you 20gb of online storage.

More speculation here and here and also everywhere on the whole dang internet.

Comments | Filed Under: apple iphone wwdc

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