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Posts from — January 2013

The Vagaries of Tech Elephants

It’s true little companies can disappear or change their plans rapidly, although I think the biggest changes normally come when a little company is acquired by a big company.  We often think big  companies are like large, lumbering elephants, but big tech companies will often change where they’re going very quickly.  I think the problem is worst in the huge consumer/mainstream markets.

Microsoft is an easy source of examples.  Microsoft was actively developing IronPython and IronRuby in 2007, but by 2011 they decided to change directions, and stopped; maybe the grass wasn’t so green in the dynamic languages pasture.  I guess F# is the “new” hot MS  language, and it does look groovy, but I wonder if they’ll still be supporting it in 5 or 10 years.

Microsoft has also recently de-emphasized .NET with the arrival of Windows 8, and many other hyped-up Microsoft technologies seem to get pushed away rapidly, such as LINQ to SQL (the Entity Framework is now the cool dude) and Silverlight.  Then there’s the matter of the preferred GUI toolkit: from MFC (ugh!) to WinForms to WPF to WPF/A to Silverlight (sort of) to Win8RT/Metro or whatever it’s being called.

Intel is another example, going all the way back to DRAM (invented by Intel), embedded processors (8051, various embedded x86 CPUs that were dropped), and of course the XScale ARM CPU (sold to Marvell).

Embedded chip companies tend tend to better; for example, we’re using the TI 320C6201 in a custom board; it was introduced in 1997 or so and is still easy to get.  But TI has promised but never delivered chips such as the C6A8168 ARM + DSP CPU.

If you’re choosing products for a long life product, these considerations matter.  You can try to leverage the cheapest consumer technologies (such as consumer PCs and tablets) and have to deal with products that out of production in less than a year.   You can select industrial grade products that have been around forever, and will be around for a long time, but you’ll be paying a lot more and dealing with outdated product.  As usual, the right mix will vary for each product; for example, I like the old, boring D-Sub connectors, but also use some newer connectors (such as the 3M Mini-Clamp).

Microsoft motivated me to write this post.  I love using interactive interpreters.  The options for .NET have traditionally included Boo (sometimes supported in SharpDevelop, but not VS), IronPython (supported in VS2010), and F# (supported in VS2012).  I like the Python, but IronPython isn’t fully integrated with .NET.  Boo has better integration (e.g. support for enumerations), but its development is very slow.  F# looks interesting, but it’ll take me a while to learn it.

Since I recently installed Visual Studio 2012, I checked up on the options, and found the Microsoft had dropped official IronPython and IronRuby support.  Boo!  However, since IronPython is open source, development has continued, although at a slower pace, and the Python Tools for Visual Studio project has kept up, and it does have an interactive window.

I still haven’t decided what I will use as my primary interactive console (IronPython/Boo/F#), but I’m definitely going to try out the Python Tools.

January 31, 2013   No Comments

Obi vs Ooma VoIP Systems

Since it’s been over a year, it’s time for an update on my home phone system.  Although I could use an Android smart phone with WiFi, VoIP app, talking Caller ID app, and call screening app, I still prefer traditional telephone / answering machines at home for a number of reasons, including easy call screening and simplicity.

Last year, I was using an Ooma Hub with DSL and an AT&T land line.  The Ooma is simple to setup and use, worked well, and provides nice features such as CNAM (Caller ID name lookup).  I had two phone numbers, one for the Ooma and one for the analog phone.  I liked that: only our friends knew the Ooma number.

Then AT&T raised their phone line rates beyond reasonable, so I dumped them and moved to Clear WiMax.  That move caused two issues with Ooma:

  1. I got frustrated that there was very little I could tweak on the Ooma unit myself to try to get it to work better on Clear.
  2. I missed having two lines; you can get that on Ooma by paying for Premier, but I didn’t feel Premier is worth it for me.

So I bought an Obi 202, which is a 2-line ATA (analog telephone adapter) designed to work with Google Voice and other SIP services.  I’ve sent my Ooma to a non-technical friend.

I find the Obi to be a great fit: Google Voice is a snap to get setup, it’s pretty easy to setup other services, it’s been solid, I can easily tweak the parameters, and it gives me two lines with up to 4 services.  My current setup is Google Voice plus Anveo (mainly for incoming calls and E911).

Clear WiMax is working OK, once I stopped using my 2.4 GHz cordless phone.  Skype always seems to work well, but SIP services (Google Voice and Anveo) occasionally have noticeable problems such as breaking up.  Eventually, I plan on doing a SIP-to-Skype bridge, but the SIP services are working well enough that it’s not a high priority.

In summary, the Ooma is great for non-technical people, but the Obi is better if you need more flexibility or want to fiddle a bit.


January 8, 2013   No Comments

MVNO Cell Phone Plans

I’ve done way too much research on cell phone plans (which are almost as confusing as airline ticket pricing); here are my current thoughts on MVNOs.

What Are MVNOs?

MVNO is an abbreviation for Mobile Virtual Network Operator; in other words, it’s a cell phone company that doesn’t own its own physical network; instead, it pays for (or “rents”) minutes and megabytes on another company’s network; that company owns the real network.  Some MVNOs are quite large; for example, TracFone has over 15 million customers.

Most MVNO plans that I’ve seen are pre-paid; you have to buy the minutes before you can use them.  Pre-paid plans are also offered by the major carriers.

One big advantage of pre-paid plans is that there are no overage fees.  Of course, there are no overage fees on unlimited plans, pre-paid or post-paid.  But it’s a nice feature for normal plans: a typical post-paid plan has a set number of minutes, and if you go over those minutes, you are charged a ridiculous amount, such as $0.35/minute.  With pre-paid plans, you’re paying for service for a fixed amount of time and for a maximum amount of usage (minutes/texts/megabytes).  If you exceed that usage before the time expires, you can simply add another card, at the same price as before.

All the MVNO plans I’ve seen are no-contract plans.  That means if you become unhappy or just want a change, you can leave right away without paying any obnoxious penalty.  On the flip side, that means there are no big handset subsidies, so for example a new Samsung Galaxy SIII will be over $500.  However, if you like to keep your phones or buy used (which I do), the cheaper monthly bills make pre-paid a much better deal.

Finally, MVNO’s often provide plans that the major carriers simply refuse to offer, such as lower rates or more flexible plans.

Disadvantages can include worse coverage (since voice and data roaming is often not included) and limited handset selection (often you have to buy the phone from the MVNO, or certain models such as iPhones are blocked).

My Experience

I am currently on Ting, using a Ting-refurbished LG Marquee.  I used to be on Net10 (my wife is still on Net10).  In the more distant past, I was on T-Mobile and Sprint.

My Net10 experiences were good.  I had to call customer support when I started, and although it took a while, there were able get my phone working with one call — and they gave free service for the trouble.  Net10 is a TracFone brand, and I believe they use both AT&T and T-Mobile.  However, the Net10 website is confusing and not well designed.

My wife is still happy with Net10, and actually likes having a limited number of minutes (it gives her an excuse to get off the phone!).  However, I missed the Centro smart phones I had on T-Mobile and Sprint, so I recently made the switch to Ting.

I bought a Ting refurbished LG Marquee Android phone ($87) plus an extended battery ($13 on Amazon), and like the result.  The Marquee is fast enough, has a high resolution screen (800×480, essential for web browsing), and a SD card slot (great since it use it as a MP3 player), but isn’t too big.  With standard battery, the phone is slim, but I still love the extended battery, since it gives the Marquee great battery life.  Currently, WiFi tethering is disabled, but there is a hack to re-enable it (Ting allows tethering, but the phone was originally for Boost).

I had to call Ting since my phone didn’t want to activate at first, and found support to be top notch, better than any of my past experiences.

What I like about Ting is that I get all the features I want (smart phone, voice, data, tethering, no contract, no overages) at a price I like.  I’m using VoIP when I’m in WiFi range.  I’ve tried both Skype and GrooveIP; I’m using Skype because a lot of the time my WiFi signal is via wireless (e.g. Clear), and Skype seems to work much better over wireless (3G or 4G) than the SIP protocols used by Google Voice.

Since I love my Blackberry Playbook, sometime in the future I might consider getting a Blackberry BB10 phone and switching to SimpleMobile (since Ting does not plan on supporting Blackberry).

Notable MVNO Plans

Here are the current plans I think are the most interesting.  You should always do your own research (including non-MVNOs), and remember that plans frequently change; for example, T-Mobile is rumored to be launching a cheaper pre-paid option.  As always, don’t forget to check out the coverage and phone selection.

  • Want a bit of everything, but your usage is variable or low?  Try Ting, a Sprint MVNO.  Ting offers a wide range of Android phones, including very affordable refurbished models, plus Ting’s BYOD is in beta (BYOD means Bring Your Own Device; of course, there are some limitations).  Ting has a unique, flexible post-paid approach: you pay $6 monthly per device, plus your usage as it fits into their “buckets”, plus taxes.  For example, if one month you talk for 450 minutes, and the next month you talk for 750 minutes, you’ll pay $9 for voice the first month (101->500 minute bucket) and $18 the second (501->1000 minute bucket).  Tethering is included, since your paying per megabyte (and the smallest data bucket is $3 for 1->100MBytes).
  • Want to talk and text a lot on the cheap?  SimpleMobile, a TracFone brand currently using T-Mobile, is offering a $25/month BYOD (they provide a SIM card) unlimited talk and text plan.
  • Want an unlimited BlackBerry plan?  SimpleMobile offers a $50/month BYOD (they provide a SIM card; the BB needs to work on T-Mobile) plan with unlimited talk, unlimited text, and unlimited 4G data.
  • Don’t talk a lot, but like to text and surf the internet?  Virgin Mobile has a $35 plan with unlimited text and data, but limited talk time.  (T-Mobile has a similar pre-paid plan available on-line only).
  • Like Verizon’s network, but not their prices?  Check out PagePlus Cellular.
  • Want great pay as you go rates?  PTel recently switched carriers (from Sprint to T-Mobile), and dropped their pay as you go rates to $0.05/minute.
  • Like mobile broadband and you’re in Sprint’s WiMax coverage?  Virgin Mobile offers 2G of 3G data and unlimited 4G WiMax data for $35/month.

January 6, 2013   No Comments