Wednesday, January 6, 2010

EXCLUSIVE: MagicJack to announce world’s lowest-priced femtocell

I spent this morning with Dan Borislow and Y.W. Sing, the CEO and Vice Chairman of MagicJack. In mid-November, I met with Dr. Sing in his Silicon Valley office for a preview of what we discussed today, enabling me to noodle on applications and show up with a raft of questions. Dan has been talking about the femtojack for nearly a year, but I can confirm based on today’s meeting that it’s real, and it’s spectacular.

We started our discussion by revisiting some of the customer service issues MagicJack faced earlier in the company’s development. I’d never used a MagicJack until I picked up a couple at the 2009 It Won’t Stay in Vegas party; in the year since, I’ve used mine from all over the world, providing me exactly what they advertise—seamless phone service anywhere that I had a decent Internet connection. A year ago, I took Dan and team seriously to task for their approach to privacy during the sign-up process. While I’d still like to see them tweak some of the verbiage in the user agreement, I can’t argue with two points Dan made to me. First, users now receive 30 minutes of registration-free calling in a 48-hour period from first use, enabling consumers to try MagicJack without having to go through a registration process. Second, Dan pointed out that MagicJack has never sent an advertising e-mail to any of their five million subscribers.

Think about that for a minute.

When was the last time you signed up for something, anything, and didn’t receive follow-on e-mail about, well, anything? That’s pretty freakin’ cool.

By the way, let’s not overlook that statistic I just threw out. Five million subscribers. I don’t have statistics in front of me, by I have to believe that five million subs puts MagicJack comfortably in the top ten of landline phone companies in North America.

Here’s another statistic for you—a billion minutes. MagicJack subscribers currently consume one billion minutes per month. If my math works, that’s an average of 200 minutes per MagicJack per month, or a little over three hours each. Realistically, that’s about the amount of time I spend on my landline on a monthly basis, so it’s entirely believable that the average user might consider dumping their landline in favor of a MagicJack (the need for an always-on computer notwithstanding). Of course, while I spend three hours a month on my landline, I spend about three hours a day on my cell phone. Unfortunately, my cell coverage at home isn’t very reliable; even more unfortunately, my experience with T-Mobile’s UMA-based Hotspot @Home has been less than stellar, so I suffer from frequent coverage drops.

Enter the femtojack.

Picture the MagicJack—a USB-attached analog terminal adapter, with one end a USB jack plugged into your computer, and the other end an RJ-11 jack into which you plug a phone (or simply use your computer’s speakers and built-in microphone). Now, remove the RJ-11 jack, replacing it with a couple of small antennae.

Voila. Femtojack.

What’s a femtojack? First, let’s define what a femtocell is. Have you ever been in a situation where your cell reception was spotty or non-existent, making you yearn to be closer to a cell tower? What if you could bring that cell tower into your home or office, all but guaranteeing you awesome cell coverage? In effect, that’s a femtocell—a device which takes the signal from your cell phone and sends it back to the telephone network (using your computer’s Internet connection), mimicking the behavior of a cell tower.

Initial attempts at improving cellular coverage involved cellular repeaters, which weren’t very efficient for one reason—they were merely amplifying or repeating an existing cell signal. Meaning, if your cell signal really sucked (or was non-existent), the repeater might not work at all. Unlicensed Mobile Access (UMA) has had a spotty record of success, with only one U.S. carrier of note deploying UMA; as noted above, my experience with UMA has been (to put it kindly) brutal. Now comes the femtocell, typically sold by or in conjunction with your cellular carrier for $150-300. Femtocells are very early in their adoption curve, and have kind of struggled to find a footing to date.

Enter Dan Borislow. Again.

Dan’s history as a telecom rebel is well-known. Now, he’s likely to stir up the telecom world again, with MagicJack’s announcement of their femtojack, a low-cost, easy-to-use femtocell targeted towards novice users.

How low-cost? How about double digits? For well less than a hundred bucks, you’ll be able to enjoy a mini cell tower in your home (or office), piggybacking your voice calls on your existing Internet connection via your computer. The best part about it? It just works. The demo calls we made today offered the same quality as typical cell calls. And, while we were in a hotel suite, Dan and Y.W. assure me that the femtojack will offer coverage throughout a 3,000 square foot home.

Sign me up!

(Part two of our interview will follow tomorrow, after MagicJack’s press release hits the wires.)

Highlights from CES Unveiled...

Most overlooked development which will change your world: SD Association is showing prototypes of SD cards using SDXC format (announced last year), breaking through the previous 32 GB limitation of SDHC. While initial shipments will be at 64 GB, the SDXC specification supports up to 2 TB--that's right, terabytes, allowing storage of 100 high definition movies on a memory card, even in the ultra-compact microSDXC format. Sure, devices will need to incorporate support for SDXC, which won't happen overnight, but the timeframe to incorporate SDHC into still cameras was reasonable; look for SDXC devices to hit shelves later this year.

Runner-up: SuperSpeed USB (USB 3.0), whose 5 gb/s signaling rate will allow mega-fast data transfer between devices--picture downloading 8 GB of photos from a still camera in 20 seconds. 17 products have already achieved compliance and certification for SuperSpeed USB, many of which were on demo at Unveiled. And yeah, they were fast.

Coolest living room industrial design: D-Link, although they were largely ignored the moment that attendees realized that the Boxee Box was D-Link's main (hell, maybe only) demo. I was making one final walk around when @avneron spotted me, grabbing me to have @academik show me the box and the keyboard. I hadn't seen the box in person; now that I have, it's grown on me. Growing on me like a weed was the remote, which is sweet. Put a four row QWERTY keyboard on the back of the remote, and a four-way navigation ring on the front, and you have the coolest remote I've seen in a long time. Not only are the boxee team changing the face of television, they're going to put a dent into the way we navigate TV, too.

Coolest living room capabilities: Three-way tie: The Boxee Box (to which I'm a little partial, as a long-time boxee user on the Mac Mini); Popbox; and the LaCie LaCinema Mini HD. Syabas has made huge strides with the user interface on the Popbox; the older Popcorn Hour box UIs kind of blew chunks. While still not up to snuff with the Moxi UI, they're making great progress--including the addition of one of Moxi's former UI designers to the Syabas team. The Boxee Box and Popbox are both geared primarily towards media streaming over the Internet, although the Popbox also has a DLNA stack for displaying content streamed from a DLNA server. The LaCinema HD is a bit schizophrenic--it can function as a DLNA media server or media player, meaning that it can sit in the back of your network and serve content, or sit up front and play out to your TV (which would be a more likely usage scenario for me). I expect to get my hands on review units from boxee, Popbox, and LaCie, so I'll let you know how they feel. I'll also soon be shaking down the new Promise DS4600, which is a four bay, RAID5 streamer.

Most promising Bluetooth headset: Bluetrek's Crescendo. With an impressive list of capabilities, could this be the device which finally unseats the Jawbone from my ear? The Crescendo is extremely light, comfortable, boasts dual-microphone noise canceling, and claims its voice command interface will support better than 95% of American's voices and accents. THAT, I'll believe when I see. Long time readers know that I've put the hurt on quite a few Bluetooth headsets over the last four or five years; many contenders and pretenders have tried to knock the Jawbone off my ear. All have failed. Maybe the Crescendo will be a legitimate threat...we'll know once they get a review unit out to me.

In the second part of my CES Unveiled highlights, we'll look at 3DTV, computing platforms, and wireless power...

Monday, January 4, 2010

Why CES 2011 Will Have The (Literally) Coolest TVs Ever

In mid-November, the California Energy Commission passed a law regulating energy efficiency in televisions 58” and smaller. The outcry from manufacturers and many consumers was swift, loud, and often nasty. The praise from environmental and regulatory groups was just as swift, not nearly as loud, and had no reason to be nasty. A bunch of you asked for my take on the situation, but I wanted to wait a little while until the hullabaloo died down. With CES kicking off in a couple of days, I figured now’s as good a time as any to comment.

As many of you know, I lead the IEEE 1680.3 Television Energy Conservation effort; composed primarily of the world’s leading television manufacturers and environmental groups (including the Environmental Protection Agency), our group is testimony to the power of cooperation. While our participants often come at an issue from diametrically opposite viewpoints, we’re fortunate that passion plus respect has equaled progress.

Some of you are aware that this past September, the EPA published Energy Star TV 4.0 and 5.0, with 4.0 taking effect in May 2010, and 5.0 taking effect in May 2012. The development of ES TV 4.0 and 5.0 has taken place over many months, with multiple rounds of comments submitted by manufacturers, retailers, environmental groups, consumers, and other interested parties. I think that it’s reasonable to say that most manufacturers consider ES TV 4.0 to be difficult but fair, and that most consider ES TV 5.0 to be difficult and unfair—particularly at large screen sizes.

However, when the EPA published the new regulations, the public outcry wasn’t deafening—it was non-existent. Why? Well, here’s my theory. Energy Star is a program created to recognize energy leadership in given categories—if you’ve bought a refrigerator, washer, dryer, or dishwasher over the past few years, odds are good that you spent part of your time in the showroom comparing the annual energy cost shown on each appliance’s label. While these numbers aren’t necessarily going to apply to each homeowner, they’re a convenient yardstick, similar to the estimated miles per gallon rating on a vehicle sticker. All other things being reasonably equal, shoppers will rarely pick one vehicle over another solely because one gets a mile or two per gallon better mileage, but there’s still value in the metric. Similarly, most consumers aren’t going to pick a fridge solely based on whether it’ll save them $60 a year in energy cost. The average Peter or Lois will choose based on format (side-by-side, top freezer, bottom freezer), features (in-door ice and water dispensers, shelf adjustability), or style (finish, color), with energy consumption as an interesting-but-not-vital component.

That said, don’t get the impression that I’m underestimating the value of Energy Star—the label dramatically simplifies the consumer shopping experience by defining the exact guidelines by which manufacturers measure and declare energy consumption. Manufacturers certainly understand the value of the label, as evidenced by the ongoing lawsuit (and countersuit) between LG and the EPA regarding the ES program stripping the Energy Star label off of LG’s refrigerators. For truly energy-conscious consumers, the ES label is the starting point; non-ES appliances won’t fit their bill. For consumers who may be less energy-conscious (perhaps the average Peter or Lois), the absence of the ES label in a room full of ES-labeled appliances can prompt enough questions that lead to the elimination of non-ES devices from consideration.

So, back to the earlier question…why the public outcry over the CEC’s new regulation, and a total lack of outcry over the new ES requirements?

What’s different here is that the Energy Star program, just like the IEEE 1680.3 program (commonly known as EPEAT), is voluntary. Manufacturers don’t have to comply, although market forces certainly compel them to. More so, leading retailers like Wal-Mart and Best Buy either have mandated or are rumored to be contemplating mandatory compliance with Energy Star in various categories of appliances. Thus, manufacturers who want to sell through the Wal-Marts and Best Buys of the world would be compelled to deliver ES-labeled devices, in effect being required to do so by their most valuable channel partners. Consumers typically aren’t aware of these types of restrictions put in place by retail channels, despite the fact that they often end up as direct beneficiaries.

Here’s a case in point. The High Definition Multimedia Interface was designed as the digital interconnect between sources and sinks (typically televisions), enabling copy-protected and in-the-clear high definition content to be digitally delivered over a single cable. The problem is, HDMI 1.0 sucked. Did it suck for the vast majority of consumers? Actually, no. For most consumers, it worked just fine, if they were lucky. But, for an annoyingly high percentage of the consumer population (meaning, more than a rounding error), HDMI 1.0 didn't work just fine. In fact, it worked intermittently, if at all. Sometimes the problems were electrical, with the source and the sink having physical mismatches which prevented the fancy HD signal from being displayed on the fancy new HDTV. Often, the problems were logical, with the High Definition Content Protection scheme ensuring that the content couldn’t be ripped off, protecting it so well that you couldn’t even watch a freakin’ movie. So many high-ticket item televisions came back to the stores that HDMI was in real danger of being laughed out of existence. And, keeping in mind that six years ago were the days of $4000-8000 flat panel TVs, retailers weren’t too thrilled with the rate of return caused by a wonky connector.

At that point, Best Buy put a stake in the ground, demanding that manufacturers take their devices through HDMI/HDCP compatibility testing. SimplayHD compliance testing went from being a nice-to-have to being a must, a requirement to sell products through Best Buy. Gradually, compatibility problems went from severe, to moderate, to nearly zero. Sure, the rare edge case still slips through the cracks, but for the most part, today’s HDMI/HDCP devices just work. A leading retailer established a policy with which suppliers had to comply; ultimately, everyone benefited—seamlessly interoperable devices meant fewer consumer returns, which meant happier retailers, which meant happier manufacturers. Win-win, all around.

Similarly, a mandate from a leading retailer mandating Energy Star labeled products would cut energy consumption, leading to lower consumer power bills. Dissimilarly, the retailer doesn't necessarily win anything here (outside of great press, which can’t be discounted), and the manufacturer has to innovate even harder to deliver energy efficient televisions, all other things being equal. But, that said, I can certainly understand a retailer’s perception that this would be the “right” thing to do.

In the case of the CEC, I believe that manufacturers (and a small but vocal portion of outraged consumers) are concerned that California has jumped the shark. To them, the EPA publishing ES guidelines is one thing; the state of California prohibiting the sale of televisions which exceed CEC guidelines is an entirely different animal. I’ve seen comparisons drawn to just about anything you could imagine: the Second Amendment (right to bear arms); the Fourth Amendment (search and seizure); Cuba; Soviet Russia; the Terminator (of course, with the Governator as the ultimate overseer of the CEC, maybe they have a point); and many more.

The one comparison that I haven’t seen is the one that I think bears the most resemblance to the matter at hand—one which also (not coincidentally) took place in California.

I’m talking about “California emissions”.

Those of us old enough to remember that term also recall Los Angeles’ reputation for brutal air quality in the 60’s and 70’s; while well-deserved, it wasn’t exactly the type of reputation an entire metropolis seeks. As far back as 1960, California began studying methods to minimize pollutants, setting the country’s first motor vehicle emission standards in 1966. Growing up in Chicagoland in the 70’s, I remember automobile commercials always having a little something different to say about cars sold in California. Later, I learned that the difference was based on California Air Resources Board (CARB) mandates permitting a dramatically lower amount of harmful emissions than allowed in most other states; the laws passed in 1966 were the first of many implemented over the past half-century. As such, cars sold in California were always a little bit more expensive—the “California car tax” meant that your car would spew less noxious emissions into the air, but at a (literal) cost.

For the first couple of decades after CARB was formed in 1967, cars sold in California weren’t necessarily engineered to have any special pollution-reducing capabilities; rather, bolt-on controls led to fewer emissions, but a higher sticker price. Gradually, automobile manufacturers simply baked the higher emission standards into their designs, enabling cars to be sold with “50 state emissions”. By approaching the emissions problem holistically, and by spreading the research and development cost of solving that problem across the entire vehicle lineup, manufacturers not only achieved a much better emissions cost per vehicle, but they streamlined their supply chain by not having to build a model specifically for a given state.

According to CARB, today’s new cars pollute 99% less than new cars did 30 years ago. Now that’s pretty impressive.

Which brings me to my point.

I had someone who shall remain nameless tell me that the CEC’s regulations were ridiculous, and that manufacturers are going to always make the most energy efficient TVs they can. Well, wrong. Manufacturers are going to produce the product which delivers the highest volume and best margin they can, energy efficiency be damned. Don’t think that this is an indictment of TV manufacturers—I’d leave all the lights on in the house and leave the water running while brushing my teeth, if there were no monetary or environmental cost in doing so.

But, there is a cost in doing so. At home, the cost of leaving the lights on or the water running is a higher electric bill, a higher water bill. For a TV manufacturer, the cost of delivering a more energy efficient TV is more research, more use of bleeding edge materials, more margin pressure, and maybe even a higher return rate if mean time between failure ends up falling due to a rushed design or an unproven manufacturing methodology.

But ya gotta start somewhere. The California Energy Commission has decided that “somewhere” is California, and that zero-hour is 1/1/2011. I’m not a manufacturer, nor am I an environmental stakeholder, nor a retailer. I’m simply an interested party who’s very deeply involved in this matter, one who’s fortunate to have seen (I think) all sides of the argument. While I think that CEC’s implementation deadline is too early by six to nine months, I also think that consumers should thank CEC, not vilify them. Just as consumers ended up being the ultimate winners in the vehicle pollution equation, consumers will end up as the ultimate winners in the television equation, too. 2011 might well and truly suck for those manufacturers who are unable to meet the CEC’s mandates by 1/1/11, but where there’s a will, there’s a way—markets always figure out an efficiency mechanism. Vendor A might not have efficient enough TVs to meet the mandates on 1/1/11, but that could simply mean a better deal through an online retailer not headquartered in California. Remember, the CEC’s mandate prevents non-compliant TVs from being sold in California—there’s nothing preventing non-compliant TVs from being bought in California.

So, while the CEC’s mandate may have upset the apple cart for many TV manufacturers, short-term pain should lead to long-term gain, for consumers, retailers, and yes, manufacturers. I’m not aware of any automobile manufacturers who went out of business because California passed gradually stronger emissions controls. I doubt we’re going to lose any TV manufacturers just because California passed a strong energy consumption control.

Manufacturers can view this mandate as a threat or as an opportunity. Those who view it as an opportunity are likely those who’ll be ready with CEC-compliant TVs for the 2010 holiday season. Toyota was ahead of the game with the Prius; everyone else is still playing catch-up.

Who’s your pick for the Toyota and Prius of the 2011 television landscape?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Two Months On With the MiFi...

I’d committed to keep y’all up to date on my ongoing experience with my MiFi. After a couple of months of use, I’m still enamored.

Verizon’s network delivers as promised, with only a few occasions where I’ve had little or no signal; ironically, in each of those situations I’ve been able to fail back to my previous connectivity method of Bluetooth tethering to my 2G T-Mobile BlackBerry Curve, so I have yet to encounter a situation where I’m totally off the air, although I realize that it’s just a matter of time until I do.

The power characteristics of the device are interesting (he says euphemistically). From a full charge, I’ve been pretty consistently getting four hours or so of use when on EVDO Rev. A. At least, I think I have—the mechanisms to determine power remaining pretty much suck. The on-screen display on the web-based management screen offers a battery icon with four levels, meaning that when you’re at two levels remaining, you’re probably in the neighborhood of 50%. Maybe—I’ve seen the device come off of full charge and show me only three levels, so it’s an inexact science, as is the device status option, giving you a number from zero to four in terms of charge remaining.

That said, I can’t fault Novatel for not offering a more concrete, hours-and-minutes-remaining option. EVDO Rev. A connectivity is not just fast, but is also the most power-efficient; when the MiFi drops back into 1xRTT mode, the battery drains faster—and the device superheats, so much so that it becomes uncomfortable to carry in a shirt pocket. Since I’ve ended up in many situations where I’ve been bouncing back and forth between Rev. A and 1x, the device would spend too many cycles trying to figure out an hours-and-minutes-remaining calculation, so I understand the reason for just having a simple battery icon.

Speaking of heat, the heat the device puts off is a minor nit. Yes, it runs hot, but it’s only an issue if the unit is pressing against your skin; even in a pants pocket, it’s not a big deal.

A bigger nit is the input juice required to actually charge the device. I carry a USB charging block, which is a compact wall-wart with fold-out plug blades and two USB ports. Sadly, the block won’t charge the MiFi, even when using the USB charging cable included with the MiFi. Numerous bloggers have written about this issue, so I won’t go into it here. Just know that you really only have two options to charge your MiFi—plug it into the wall using the included AC adapter, or plug it into your wall-powered computer using the included USB-to-microUSB cable. Note that I say “wall-powered computer”. I can’t speak to the battery-based charging capabilities of non-Macs, but I can speak to my own experience.

Here’s an example. Last month, I needed to participate in a two hour GoToMeeting while driving from Falls Church, VA to Linthicum, MD. (Don’t try this at home…I’m a professional.) I plugged a half-charged (according to the battery icon, at least) MiFi into my fully charged MacBook using the MiFi’s USB-to-microUSB cable, and hit the road. The only application running on my Mac at the time was GoToMeeting; all radios were off, since I was USB-tethered to the MiFi. While I’m fortunate that the drive ended up taking well less than two hours, by the time I ended the call, I’d just about run out of battery on both the MiFi and my MacBook. This MacBook celebrates its second birthday next week; while the battery is nowhere near factory fresh, I typically get about four hours of use when in travel mode (radios off, a couple of applications running in lightweight form). Thus, I was very surprised to find that not only did my Mac bite the dust much faster than I would’ve expected, but the MiFi being plugged in provided no charging benefit whatsoever—and in fact may’ve been detrimental to the Mac’s battery charge. I haven’t performed any scientific testing on this topic, but you should consider it in your own use—be aware that if you’re not wall-powered, you may derive no charging benefit from being physically tethered.

Finally, I haven’t bumped up against the five gigabyte per month data transfer cap yet. My MiFi use tends to be very bursty—if I’m on the road in a hotel that expects me to pay for Wi-Fi, the MiFi becomes my lifeline. But, if I’m in a location where I have ready access to a network, the MiFi remains off (yet fully charged). That said, it’s invaluable at certain times. Earlier today, about five minutes before my flight pushed off the gate, I needed to do something on the Internet that was going to be a pain from my BlackBerry. I turned on the MiFi for the first time in more than two weeks; as it roared to life, I popped my Mac open (again giving thanks for the fact that the Mac’s OS/hardware pairing enables me to resume from sleep in moments, rather than the minutes typical on “other” computing platforms), hopped on the ‘net, took care of business, and was back offline in about three minutes. The absolute immediacy of being able to do so via Wi-Fi made the process seamless—no USB stick to plug in, no connection manager software to launch to connect. Just a button press on the MiFi, the opening of my Mac’s lid, and VOOM.

While I eagerly await the forthcoming 3G/4G MiFi Novatel’s developing for the Sprint network, I’ve found the investment in my Verizon MiFi to be absolutely worth it—my best purchase of 2009.