Friday, October 30, 2009

G.hn: Helping Create the Next Token Ring?

Huh?

That’s right. I said it—“token ring”. Eight oh two dot five. Everyone’s favorite token passing architecture, unless you were a MAP/TOP guy; if you were, I’m sorry.

Why am I thinking about token ring? Two reasons.

First, I’ve just spent three days at the P2030 (IEEE’s smart grid interoperability workgroup) meeting, hosted by IBM at their Thomas J. Watson Research Center north of New York City. IBM was synonymous with token ring; in the forty year old Watson facility (which, aside from being beautiful, has aged magnificently well), I’d bet money that Types 1, 2, and/or 9 cables are still providing tensile strength, if not actually passing any data. Heck, even today, when I see certain numbers (8228, 3174), I can’t help but think of the elegant (and extremely socialist) nature of token ring. Ethernet allows for serious bogart-age of the contention-based transmission medium; token ring’s deterministic approach ensured that everyone would need to share somewhat reasonably, even if some stations took a few more hits on the token than others.

Second, I just read an article over at Light Reading on the forthcoming International Telecommunication Union G.hn Recommendation. I’d encourage you to read the article, which is very well-written but to me is way off the mark. The gist is that certain entities using technologies with which G.hn will eventually compete aren’t happy about a new specification coming down the pike.

This is newsworthy how?

Maybe I’ve been in this game too long. Maybe we should just cease development and innovation so that existing technologies can enjoy their hegemony without threat from advancements which, well, you know, make things better.

Maybe not.

Sure, entrenched players want to protect existing markets and customers. If I were the quoted “executive for a major U.S. company using MoCA” who “said, on condition of anonymity that his company is happy with what it has now and has no plans to deploy G.hn”, I’d be shouting from the mountaintops, too, in hopes that a new technology didn’t come along and relegate my existing solution to the back seat. Mr. Anonymous has a solution that works well. Coolio. He probably has tens or hundreds of thousands of set-top boxes, maybe even millions, with embedded MoCA chipsets. He wants to ensure the continued success of MoCA, in hopes that the technology won’t go by the wayside, as well as to ensure that any new technology (e.g., G.hn) doesn’t whack MoCA. Right. I get it.

But, these protests are disingenuous, as are the protests mentioned by the HomePlug Alliance. So there are “tons of HomePlug AV products” in retail shops. Okay. Well, there were millions of ports of token ring in Enterprise America two decades ago, too. From 1991-1993, I had an office at Sears Tower, a building with which I had a love-hate relationship whenever I went from the 19th floor (where I was stationed) up to the 72nd for meetings, a trek which required multiple elevator lobby transitions. But, that isn’t what remains etched most deeply in my mind. As a networking guy, one of my most vivid memories is of the wiring closets on the lower floors, those which had the biggest and broadest footprint. Most buildings have a main distribution frame (MDF) on the main floor or in the basement, and a single intermediate distribution frame (IDF) on each floor.

Not The Tower. No, no, no. The Tower had four IDFs on each floor. If that ain’t bad-ass, I don’t know what is. As you’d expect, each IDF had vertical riser connections back to the MDF; horizontally, each IDF handled one-quarter of each floor’s distribution needs. Literally and figuratively, the common thread was IBM Type 1 cable, the big, thick, shielded black cables with the hermaphroditic connector. Seriously…look it up. I used to comment only half-jokingly that if the Type 1 cable was ever taken out of The Tower, it’d fall down, since the wiring seemed to be such a vital component of the building’s infrastructure—and it really was. Iron might’ve been the spinal column, but the Type 1 cable was the spine itself, the neurological pathway enabling The Tower’s heart to beat.

When I took up residence at The Tower in 1991, a newfangled technology called 10Base-T was just becoming popular; those of us at Cabletron were locked in a duel with our hated enemy Synoptics to land-grab as much of the twisted-pair networking market as possible. The development of twisted-pair transmission freed Ethernet (or eight oh two dot three, if you prefer) from the handcuffs of frozen garden hose, vampire taps, and 50 ohm terminators, so we were all eager to earn more than our fair share.

I recall walking (lumbering, actually) into customers and prospects carrying my MMAC-3 (now with improved FNB!), giving demos of this new twisted pair technology. Many customers were sold immediately. Others, particularly Big Blue shops, didn’t come along quite so easily. 18 years on, I can still remember some of the questions…
  • “How do you ensure that one station can’t take over all the bandwidth?”
    “Well, uh, we can’t.” (This was in the days before per-port switching, so CSMA/CD wasn’t just a good idea, it was the law.)

  • “So, if you can’t prevent one station from taking over all the bandwidth, how do you ensure that each station gets a reasonable share?”
    “Well, uh, that’s kind of self-policing in the CSMA/CD protocol…random back-offs give each user a chance to jump into the conversation, like if you’re on a telephone conference call.”

  • “So, if I’m not guaranteed a time-slice like I am on token ring, how can you guarantee response time for my latency-sensitive SNA applications?”
    “Your 3270 terminal emulation package will provide whatever spoofing and keep-alives necessary.” (Fingers crossed)

  • “Seriously?”
    “Wow, will you look at the time…lunch?”
My point here is that token ring was what it was all about, but time marched on. While token ring evolved from a 4 mb/s to a 16 mb/s specification, and while the dual counter-rotating 100 mb/s FDDI came out for those who really, really liked their data to run in circles, token ring didn’t win. Ethernet/10Base-T ended up being cheaper, easier to deploy, and had much broader appeal. Was it the best technology? That’s debatable—once the world moved from shared to switched bandwidth, the argument became kind of irrelevant. But, Ethernet had the broadest industry support, and its simpler architecture enabled the economies of scale so vital to any semiconductor solutions success.

This isn’t a technology argument, folks. This is a business argument. Yeah, Betamax and 1394 might’ve been good, even technically superior, solutions in their day—but they were each surpassed by solutions that were as amenable from a business standpoint as they were from a technical one.

Plus, as CopperGate notes in the article, none of these solutions are going away tomorrow. Hell, even token ring needed a decade or so to drift into irrelevance. MoCA and HomePlug (and other solutions based on the coax, phone line, and power line media G.hn supports) aren’t being thrown into the rubbish bin just because the ITU has defined a new technical standard. Many wars remain to be fought, most importantly on the business side. If G.hn is truly better than other solutions from a technical standpoint, it has a solid shot at success—but so did token ring, Betamax, and 1394. But G.hn’s truly worldwide appeal could (and should) enable semiconductor manufacturers to deliver compelling solutions in the volumes required to make G.hn ubiquitous across the planet. If and when that happens, THAT’S when incumbents really need to worry.

One final thought. HomePlug’s president states that he’s “disappointed that they think it’s a good idea to create a standard that is incompatible with what’s out in the market.” Hogwash. If that were the case, we’d still be using 802.4 on the manufacturing floor rather than industrial Ethernet. That’s right—eight oh two dot four, the token-passing bus, also referred to by some as “the worst of both worlds”. Sometimes you’ve gotta eat your young. The industry might, and I stress might, be doing so with G.hn. Hurdles remain; G.hn end user products won’t be out for at least another year, likely longer. But the race is underway; as consumers, we’ll all benefit from products which perform better, at price points which should be lower than we’re used to. If the ITU hadn’t undertaken its effort to unify under a single chipset the three wires found in the home, we’d likely see years more of geographical isolation per technology, hindering existing solutions from ever achieving the critical mass so desirable in the semiconductor world.

This is a volume ballgame. Crank it up.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

In Praise of Low-Tech Elegance

Sunday night, Sony finally announced their long-awaited streaming relationship with Netflix, enabling PlayStation 3 gaming consoles to access Netflix’ Watch Instantly—now, PS3 users who subscribe to Netflix will have access to thousands of movies at a moment’s notice. As a guy who’s been streaming video throughout my home for years (at varying bitrates and with varying degrees of success), my kneejerk reaction to the Sony-Netflix announcement was summed up in a single utterance.

Huh?

I mean, I have a reasonable amount of gear in my home--as many as five wireless routers operating at any given time (ah, the joys of channel conflict at 2.4 GHz), gigabit Ethernet, a VPN, terabytes of network-attached storage, a couple of media-centric servers, boxee, Front Row, multiple TV-connected media players, a couple of MagicJacks, a few SIP phones, and other stuff I’m likely forgetting, mostly wrapped up in the warm hug of DLNA and UPnP. Why the heck would I do something as low-tech as ask Netflix for a physical disk to enable streaming through a PS3? What are these people, Luddites?

Well, yeah. Which turns out to be the point.

When I look at the amount of time I’ve spent building routers (using dd-wrt and tomato), configuring devices, downloading and upgrading software, and generally being a geek, I shudder. Why the heck does this stuff have to be so hard? The good news is, UPnP makes device and service discovery dramatically easier than using proprietary point solutions; DLNA provides similar efficiency for content sharing. The bad news is, none of this stuff is as easy as dropping a disk into a DVD player.

Until now.

Kudos to Netflix and Sony for not over-engineering a solution from the get-go. In the desire to deliver on the promise of the fully-connected home, manufacturers and service providers all-too-often deliver a wedding cake, when a cupcake would suffice. Netflix already has arguably the world’s coolest snail mail distribution network, so it’s a negligible incremental cost to ship a single disk to enable this capability. At some later date, you should certainly expect to see a Netflix widget on your PS3.

But, for now, enjoy your cupcake.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

BlackBerry Desktop Manager for the Mac, Part 2

I've received a number of questions regarding my earlier post on my experience with RIM's BlackBerry Desktop Manager for the Mac...
  • Yes, I tried different USB cables of varying lengths--short and long, retractable and non.
  • Yes, I made sure I was signed out of Spanning Sync on all my machines before going down this path.
  • Yes, I ensured that my "Import:Address Book Archive" executions were all into an address book totally devoid of entries, with iSync reset when I did so.
  • Yes, in addition to meeting the system requirements of OS 10.5.5 or above (as noted, I'm running 10.5.8) and BB OS 4.2 or above (as noted, I'm running 4.5.0.81), I'm running a version of iTunes (9.0.1) newer than the required 7.7.1. What that has to do with my contacts sync issue, I have no idea--I'm not running a friggin' iPhone here, folks.
  • Yes, I deleted, rebooted, and reinstalled the BDM application on my Mac multiple times, doing an iSync reset every time.
  • Yes, I tried both the single Mac (syncs faster) and multiple Mac (syncs safer) method. Same inaccurate and incomplete results.
  • No, I didn't have PocketMac on this machine. Ever.
  • No, I didn't try posting anything to BlackBerry's support forums. With all due respect, with nearly 25 years of personal computing under my belt, if I can't figure out a piece of consumer-focused software without turning to a manual, you've committed a serious design flaw, delivered a lousy implementation, and have little hope of Joe the Plumber enjoying a sufficiently simple and straightforward experience.
In an effort to further troubleshoot this problem, my buddy Anton dropped off an extra Curve. Like my own, this is a T-Mobile 8320 Curve, unlocked with a TMO unlock code. Anton wiped out this unit (which we'll call Curve B), ensuring that it was as close to factory fresh as possible.

I fired up my sandbox HackBook, which is an MSI Wind U100 running OS X 10.5.7. This too is as close to factory fresh as possible, with an address book which has never been populated. I used the same address book archive with which I'd started this most recent round of syncs. If the sync performed somewhat as expected, I'd end up with the same number of contacts on Curve B as I had in the HackBook's address book--2336.

Voilà! We have liftoff. Or do we? If you recall, in my previous post, I looked at five Karens, a Vince, an Anton, and myself. How did we fare this time around?

Better--but still far from perfect. All five Karens have physical addresses this time--definitely an improvement. Vince, Anton, and I all have physical addresses. Cool. But, one of Vince's three e-mail addresses is missing, as are three of my five; Anton is also missing one of his two mobile numbers.

On Curve B, I looked at about two dozen other records and detected the exact same thing--no more than one instantiation of a given type makes it through the sync process. Have a friend with two home e-mail addresses? Sorry--only one of those will make it from your Mac to the BlackBerry. Have a client with two office numbers or two mobiles? Forget about it--you now have a 50% chance of reaching him from your BlackBerry. Have a listing for relatives which contains both of their cell numbers? Oops, sorry Dad...my BlackBerry has decided you're not important enough to sync, so I'll have to ask Mom to pass her phone to you. Nothing personal, mind you. I'll call you from my desk on Father's Day.

Honestly, I don't know if Windows BDM has this limitation, but I'm pretty certain it doesn't--I think I'd recall such a shortcoming from my earlier (admittedly limited) experience with the Windows version. Plus, the fact that I ended up with two different forms of inaccurate sync results in my two tests speaks further to the fact that the architecture of the product may be fundamentally broken.

Let me be crystal clear on something here. I'm a HUGE BlackBerry fan. I'm a ridiculously heavy mobile e-mail user, so the iPhone (despite its vastly superior browsing experience) isn't an option for me--I need a keyboard. Plus, like many consultants, I run my business on my BlackBerry and on my Mac, so I've come up with workarounds (as I described in my earlier post) in an attempt to somewhat mimic the behavior and capabilities Windows BlackBerry users have enjoyed for years. While it's easy to dismiss the Mac as a small portion of the computing landscape, a company like RIM which is targeting consumers simply can't ignore the Mac community--one whose computer choice reinforces that they're willing to pay a multiple to enjoy the best possible computing experience. That's a vital demographic, no matter how you slice it.

Yes, I give RIM credit for delivering a product that doesn't wildly screw up my contacts like PocketMac did. Primum non nocere. Thank god for small victories.

And yes, sync is hard. Absolutely. But, with more than 80% of RIM's new customers in Q2 coming from the consumer sector, RIM's going to need to get BDM for the Mac right, and quickly. RIM's new advertising campaign is pretty impressive in terms of reach, although I can't say much about conversion--the effort at the Soldier Field kickoff of U2's North American tour was particularly underwhelming. RIM's making a ton of impressions, at concerts, on websites (as above), sporting events (where I'm getting a little sick of seeing Ernie Johnson's tap shoes), and in print. But, all of that spend, all of it, will go for naught if the product doesn't deliver on some pretty basic features like easy, accurate contact and calendar sync. Don't believe me? Then you haven't been keeping up on the Microsoft/Danger/Sidekick fiasco of the past two weeks. Content is king--and personal data like contacts and calendars are the royalty of content.

In the Q2 earnings call, RIM's CEO said "I really want to make it clear that this stuff is going much more mainstream, and we're teed up to go much more mainstream."

Not yet, you're not. Not yet.

Hey, Bay Area Baseball Fans!

In case you're not aware, this Saturday in San Jose the California Vintage Base Ball Federation is hosting the Legends of Baseball Vintage Showdown in San Jose. Every Giants fan should be there--Willie Mays, Willie Mac, Gaylord Perry, and Juan Marichal are on tap, as are other hall of famers including Bob Feller, Fergie Jenkins, Brooks Robinson, and many more.

Looks like the weather's gonna be good, so get your tickets now! Learn more at the CVBBF website.

Lefty O'Doul Chapter SABR Meeting and 1949 Japan Tour Exhibit Preview

A week ago Saturday, about 50 members and friends from the Lefty O'Doul Chapter of the Society of American Baseball Research met for our quarterly meeting, at a very cool venue--the aviation museum in SFO's international terminal. This wasn't a coincidence...we were there to see an awesome exhibit on the Pacific Coast League, the West Coast's major league from 1903 until westward expansion in 1958.

I wasn't even aware that SFO has a museum; through the years, I've seen any number of impressive exhibits at SFO (particularly in the F concourse connector), but I didn't realize that there was a physical museum, which is modeled on SFO's 1937 passenger waiting room. I don't typically think of airports as destinations...to me, they're portals as I move from A to B. But, the SFO museum is a destination worthy of arriving an hour (or two) early for a flight.

Marlene Vogelsang (chapter chair) led us off, introducing Tim O'Brien and his team from the SFO Museum. Tim spoke about the challenges in pulling together the exhibit--good challenges, from the sound of it, as the biggest issue seemed to be determining just how many lender artifacts they could squeeze in. Mark Macrae then provided an overview of the league, with Bill Swank, Ray Saraceni, and Alan O'Connor sharing knowledge on their own areas of expertise; each was brief, as we were all eager to see the goods themselves.

We then headed out to the exhibit, which is dead center in the middle of the international terminal. Thank god for SABR, as I would've never known that the exhibit was here; in fact, when I flew to Shanghai last month, I absolutely would've shown up an hour early, just to enjoy the PCL exhibit. The museum staff always has a compelling range of artifacts displayed, but an exhibit on baseball is obviously in my sweet spot. The exhibit case itself is quite large, probably 50 feet from end to end. Chock full of material primarily from Macrae, Saraceni, Swank, O'Connor, and Doug McWilliams, I readily understood the difficulty Tim and his team had in choosing which items to include in the exhibit--a wealth of artifacts is pretty uncommon, I was told.

Mark took us through much of the history of the Pacific Coast League, covering players, stadiums, uniforms, and much, much more. My favorite story from Mark concerned old Recreation Park in San Francisco. During Prohibition, SF's finest turned a blind eye towards consumption at the ballpark; as a result, even at otherwise poorly attended dates, the "club level" behind first base was always full, thanks to the bargain of a game ticket and a shot of whiskey for 75 cents.

Bill followed up with an overview of PCL in the Southland, covering the Hollywood and San Diego teams. As you might expect, Hollywood had lots of actors and actresses who followed the team; Bill shared stories on a few of them, while showing numerous photos from a book he authored. Bill was one of a number of SABR members who flew in for the meeting--another great reason to meet at SFO.

Alan wrapped up with an overview of baseball in Sacramento; each answered a steady stream of questions from the group. At the end of their talks, attendees hung around for another half-hour or so to speak with two former PCL players who'd joined us for the day.

As we were winding down, Marlene mentioned that Mark was taking a few folks down to the Society of California Pioneers Museum in the city. I wasn't aware that the SCP was putting on an exhibit commemorating Lefty O'Doul's 1949 baseball goodwill tour of Japan. Even though the museum wasn't open this particular Saturday, they'd agreed to allow SABR members in for a preview, particularly since we had members who'd traveled from as far as Vancouver (Lefty's hometown!) for our meeting.

So, up 101 we went, heading for the SCP Museum at Fourth and Folsom. Despite its ideal location, I'd never visited the museum before; now that I've seen a tiny glimpse, I'll definitely be back. The O'Doul exhibit isn't huge in terms of footprint, but it's unbelievable in terms of what's been saved--a fitting homage to the guy who resurrected the relationship between U.S. and Japanese baseball.

We obviously weren't on the best of terms with Occupied Japan in the late '40s. General Douglas MacArthur thought that a goodwill baseball tour of Japan would be healthy for the country's morale; in short order Lefty was tapped, bringing the San Francisco Seals across the Pacific for a month of baseball.

Starting in 1932, Lefty barnstormed through Japan multiple times before the war, so he was well-regarded by Japanese baseball fans. The 1934 barnstorming team led by Connie Mack was particularly impressive, with luminaries like Ruth, Gehrig, and Foxx joining Lefty on the tour, but it was Lefty who returned time and again to the Land of the Rising Sun--making him the perfect choice to lead the 1949 effort.

MacArthur had suggested the tour, but Japanese industry (including many newspapers) footed the bill. And, as I learned at the exhibit, no expense was spared. Holy cow...the amount of time and effort (and money) that went into the tour is amazing. Ticker tape parades? Check. Huge fêtes in Ginza? Check. Special baseball cards issued just for the tour? Check. Bunting? Check.

(An aside. Man, I love playoff baseball. Gotta be the bunting.)

Just like most kids growing up in the Midwest in the '70s, I had a pretty healthy baseball card collection, but the range of memorabilia in this exhibit is mind-blowing. The museum has reproduced (and thankfully greatly enlarged) a set of menko, baseball cards issued specifically for the 1949 tour. I managed to make it to SCP when the only other person who'd arrived was Ray Saraceni, the lender for the menko set (and many other items on display). Ray's stories about the cards, photos, playbills, and other memorabilia are awesome. Lefty's cousin Tom O'Doul had been at the SABR meeting, but wasn't able to make it over to SCP; walking around the room with Ray and other lenders was great, but I wish we'd also had Tom to add familial color.

All in all, a great day out, even though we saw no baseball on the final weekend of the regular season. If you're in the Bay Area and love baseball, you must get to SFO in the next couple of weeks before the exhibit comes down; call the museum at (650) 821-6700 to make sure the PCL exhibit is still up. You'll find it in the G1 case on the departures level of the international terminal. Tim O'Brien mentioned that due to its popularity, the exhibit might survive a few weeks longer than planned. Then, take the 15-minute (non-rush hour) drive to the city to the Society of California Pioneers museum. They're open from 10-4 Wednesday through Friday, and on the first Saturday of each month. Learn more about visiting SCP here.

Curious to learn more about Lefty O'Doul? Read Tom Hawthorn's excellent article here. Want to learn more about Lefty and his experiences in Japan? Read John Holway's thorough history here. Finally, want to learn more about the 1949 Japan trip? That's easy. As I just said, get to the Society of California Pioneers museum here.

Oh, one more thing. Not a SABR member yet? Why not? Join here.

Monday, October 12, 2009

BlackBerry Desktop Manager for the Mac

(After reading, find a follow-on to this post here)

Friday October 2nd will be remembered for two epic failures--Chicago's elimination in the first round of voting for the 2016 Olympics, and for the release of RIM's horribly incomplete Desktop Manager for the Mac. I had high hopes for both; both ended up poorly. The good news is that RIM has a chance to fix this in short order, whereas Chicago just goes back to being a great city that isn't going to get a second chance to host the big games in seven years.

I'm not sure if I should give RIM a D, an F, or an incomplete. Maybe by the time I'm done writing this review, I'll have made that determination. In fact, I've held off writing this recap; I've hoped that each of the last 10 days, I'd wake up to some magic button that allowed synchronization to occur accurately. Nope.

A little background...I'm not exactly a newb when it comes to matters of syncing a BlackBerry and a Mac. When I launched my consultancy in 2007, I knew that the BlackBerry and the Mac were my two platforms of choice, so I set to work to determine the best approach to keep my e-mail, contacts, and calendar in sync. For e-mail, I chose Google Apps for Your Domain, as its IMAP capabilities make e-mail work the way e-mail should work. As in, it just works. Meeting my other two needs was a little more challenging.

BlackBerry Desktop Manager for Windows was obviously the slam-dunk choice if I'd been on a PC, but I wasn't--nor was I willing to run a Windows virtual machine just to run BDM, particularly since moving contacts and calendars between my Mac and Windows would be a process in and of itself, rather than having that synchronization occur as part of my normal workflow on my Mac. So, for contacts and calendar sync, I went with RIM's offering at the time, PocketMac.

Which could not have been worse. Let me remove any doubt from the equation--PocketMac was without question or hyberbole, the unequivocally worst PIM sync solution I'd ever used. Starting with my Franklin REX in 1997, I've used portable devices running operating systems from Motorola, Nokia, Microsoft, Palm, BlackBerry, and maybe one or two others I've forgotten--none of which polluted, duplicated, corrupted, or flat-out deleted data like PocketMac did. Luckily, I had backups of my data files, but PocketMac proved to be an enormous waste of time and effort.

Poking around in the blogosphere, I learned that A) PocketMac sucked (which I'd figured out on my own); B) Missing Sync for the BlackBerry seemed to be the solution of choice for tethered contacts and calendar sync; and C) Spanning Sync was the way to go for cloud-based calendar sync with Google Apps.

So, I bought licenses for both, using Missing Sync to keep my contacts sync'd to my BB via USB, and using Spanning Sync to enjoy two-way cloud-based calendar sync via Google Apps. That worked great until February 2009, when all hell broke loose. I upgraded my BB's OS from 4.2 to 4.5; for whatever reason, Missing Sync broke like eggs in the colander above Jeremy Clarkson's head. The OS upgrade caused contacts to be deleted from my Mac, but not from my BB; vice versa; and for individual contacts to duplicated up to a dozen times. The solution from Mark/Space (Missing Sync's publisher) to try to correct my data? Pay for an upgrade to the next version of Missing Sync--a lousy policy for a piece of sync software. Yes, I pay for updated software regularly. But, a crucial part of the implied contract between a sync software vendor and a sync software user is that the software won't f-up my data.

Heck, I'm perfectly capable of doing that on my own.

So, sadly, I threw Missing Sync to the trash. I'd started this journey with about 3500 contacts. After the sync collision, I had nearly 6000 contacts, with little trust in the veracity of the data in any of them. But, I had a backup! Since I'd needed to fire up Fusion to use BDM to perform the 4.2 to 4.5 RIM OS update, I had a backup. Lordy me. I figured that I could simply roll back my contacts database to where I'd been in the good ol' 4.2 days, then wipe out my Mac address book (after backing up, of course), then use Missing Sync to push my contacts from my BB to my Mac.

Sadly again, that didn't work. Something in the move to Missing Sync 2.0 beta was throwing all kinds of sync errors; working with the Mark/Space tech support team to resolve this was sadly an exercise in futility. But, with the lemons dealt, I chose to make lemonade, using this as an opportunity to upgrade the quality of my contacts database by deleting stale contacts. Over the next couple of months, I dealt with the frustration of having a BlackBerry and a Mac without a good copy of my contacts. Sure, I endured some extremely annoying moments, but at least I usually had a copy of contact data somewhere, even if I had to go find it. After about six weeks (and a requisite amount of red wine), I had a contacts database with about 2300 sanitized contacts, one which I now back up every 30 seconds or so.

Okay, not that frequently...I back up every time I'm about to do something new and/or questionable--like installing BDM for the Mac. With that saga as background, here's the good, the bad, and the ugly on the new BDM for the Mac...

The good:
  • Installation is a breeze, notwithstanding the need to reboot the Mac upon completion. I can't really argue with a reboot, as the process/daemon that needs to watch the USB port for device connection has to get cranking.
  • The ability to back up your BlackBerry with a single click is awesome, and long overdue on the Mac platform; similarly awesome are the capabilities to selectively backup and/or nuke selected device databases, like the address book or calendar, and to install/remove/update applications.
  • iTunes synchronization is seamless, save for a few inconsequential errors relating to unsupported file formats.
The bad:
  • Sync is slow. And when I say slow, I mean slooooooooow. Not, pop up for a spot of tea slow. I mean, drive over to Costco for another cube of Diet Pepsi slow. I can deal with the two-plus hours the app took to initially sync 3.5 gigabytes of music from iTunes to my Curve; what I can't deal with is 10-15 minutes on each sync, just for the app to make sure that my contacts haven't changed.
  • Logs aren't horribly useful--the fact that the log seems to have some kind of a maximum size means I can't debug the beginning of most of my sync sessions, as the first n hundreds of lines simply scroll out of the log and aren't available to be saved. I have logs with more than a thousand lines that're still incomplete. Yes, I want logs that tell me what happens to each (e.g., contact) record during the sync process, but incomplete logs are nearly as worthless as no logs at all.
The ugly:
  • Sync doesn't freakin' work. Full stop. Now, I can't validate this on any other platform than a T-Mobile 8320 Curve running 4.5.0.81 and a black MacBook running 10.5.8. But, I'm not exactly an edge case here. I asked BDM to sync my contacts and iTunes. Nothing else. iTunes works great. Contacts sync doesn't. Fail, fail, fail, fail, fail.
Now, you may ask yourself "Coop, what doesn't work?" Lemme tell ya...contacts sync doesn't work. Let's break this down. The number of contacts on my Mac matches the number of contacts in my BlackBerry. Woohoo! A point for BDM!

And that'd be all. Examples? I have five Karens in my address book. For two of them, their physical addresses don't sync onto my BlackBerry. (Thankfully, BDM hasn't deleted them from my Mac, but for that, I have backups!) I have two Vinces. For the one that I care about (and yes, that's a stretch if you know who I'm talking about), one of his e-mails and both of his physical addresses are missing on my BB. I have two Antons. Like Vince, my local Anton is missing one phone number and his physical address. Even on my own contact information, BDM has managed to truncate my information by three e-mail addresses, two physical addresses, and a partridge in a pear tree.

Let's be crystal clear on this--a partial sync (with even a single record being off) falls into the same category as being a little bit pregnant, the challenge being, on a partial sync I have no idea who was the culprit or what kind of further symptoms I might expect. And yes, I've done all the stuff you would hope I would've--resetting iSync multiple times, wiping out the Mac and BB address books and reloading clean copies, etc.

I really, really, REALLY don't think I'm asking for too much here. I'm pained every time I hear my local Anton talk about how seamlessly Windows BDM syncs his 40,000 contacts...and how quickly, too. I'm familiar with garbage in, garbage out. But, when I'm providing a 48 ounce porterhouse on one end, I expect a 48 ounce porterhouse on the other, not a slider made of Hamburger Helper.

So, last night I went back to Spanning Sync to synchronize my contacts between my Mac and my BB. I call Spanning Sync "the poor man's BES"--using their over-the-air sync of Google Apps contacts and calendars in conjunction with Google Apps' IMAP functionality gets me pretty darn close to a BlackBerry Enterprise Server for the stuff I care about.

And, yeah, contacts sync worked great last night. I'm glad to be back to Spanning Sync.

Truthfully, I was a little worried about the fate of Spanning Sync (and yes, Missing Sync, too) with the arrival of BDM for the Mac. Unless BDM for the Mac gets way better, way quickly, they have nothing to worry about.

So, yes, BDM for the Mac is a vital piece of software, for its ability to back up and restore your BB; for its ability to selectively whack individual databases on your BB; for its ability to let you upgrade the OS, or upgrade or delete applications; and for its iTunes sync capability. But, until they get contacts sync right, BDM for the Mac will remain a backup tool--literally.

Grade: D+ with an incomplete.
Homework: Correction of sync capabilities to work as assigned to remove and resolve incomplete tasks.
Prognosis: B+ upon resolution.

(Find a follow-on to this post here)

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A New Home Networking Powerhouse?

Not exactly.

But, published reports that Sigma Designs is looking at buying CopperGate intrigue me. Both do a ton of business with AT&T, both have recently joined the HomeGrid board of directors, both are looking to expand their IPTV footprints worldwide, and both would benefit from sales synergies in terms of current and targeted customers. Plus, the combined entity would be well-positioned to attack many aspects of next-generation connectivity between homes and utilities, as we continue the inexorable march towards a smarter power grid.

That said, I've been less than impressed with Sigma's overall messaging of late, particularly as it relates to...well...pretty much everything they do. Not a single new press release in four months? This, from a public company? No press releases on quarterlies in the last ten months? Wow. Sigma acquired Zensys in December, 2008, and we've heard not a peep since. Zensys' website has been in zombie mode since shortly before the Sigma acquisition, too.

The ZigBee Alliance continues to expand their messaging and reach in the home control world, particularly in the smart grid arena, where their combined messaging with the HomePlug Alliance resonates extremely well. Pun intended.

Meanwhile, the Z-Wave Alliance continues to pump out press releases (in both English and German!), but they've been noticeably absent from high profile events (e.g., GridWeek) in the U.S. over the last year. I can certainly understand Z-Wave's focus on Europe, as the EU is ahead of the U.S. on a number of smart grid initiatives. But, I can't reconcile the fact that Sigma acquired Zensys--the creator of the Z-Wave specification--almost a year ago, and they've done so little to progress Zensys' products or the Z-Wave Alliance, at least visibly.

HomePlug and ZigBee's names are all over the first draft of the NIST Framework and Roadmap for Smart Grid Interoperability Standards, yet Z-Wave is nowhere to be found, save for a few letters as part of the consolidated comments process...sadly, not convincing enough to prompt NIST to include Z-Wave as one of the 31 identified standards, or one of the 46 to be considered as part of the further review process. True, this is the first draft, with two more revisions to follow before finality. But, this is symptomatic of the lack of industry momentum for Z-Wave, and speaks well to the efforts of other standards organizations and alliances--heck, G.9960, which isn't even finalized yet, managed to be recognized as an identified standard.

My belief is that a Sigma-CopperGate combination would be able to deliver a compelling silicon platform for whole home connectivity at rates from kilobits to gigabits per second, while also having the brains (in their 86XX series) to display and control the home. But, Sigma must do a better job of integrating CopperGate than they have with Zensys.

Otherwise, why bother?