Archive for January 2009

Free Your Phone

January 30, 2009

In the cell phone market vendors in the US pride themselves on having the best handsets. Have you noticed that Verizon doesn’t have any of the phones that ATT does? There are many reasons for this, most likely is exclusive handset deals (iPhone being one of the biggest, but even the Moto Razr was exclusive when it was first released). As a result of these deals cell phone companies will lock down the product preventing you from taking the phone to another competitor. As part of this eco system most cell phones are made specifically for the cell provider (so the Moto Razr that ATT carries is different than Verizon). Cell phone carriers like to have full and ultimate control over the phones, what they can do, what can be added, who can do the adding. On the surface this isn’t always bad, if they allowed just any software or hardware on their network they open themselves up to problems which could ruin the customers experience (imagine if a virus started going around rendering every phone on a network dead, or if someone did something, by accident, that rendered the network useless). However, what is happening now is vendor lock-in or control that reaches beyond just safety and user experience. Note the EFF’s point from their new campaign called Free Your Phone:

* Apple uses software locks on the iPhone to censor ebooks and block mobile applications that would compete with Apple’s own software.
* T-Mobile’s software locks prevent owners from gaining root access to the Google Android G1 phone, needlessly limiting the phone’s bluetooth and other capabilities.
* And virtually every mobile device sold today is locked to a single telecommunications carrier.

Apple has given millions of users a virtually flawless user experience with thousands of apps and much functionality, but while all that is to be commended they also have a strict vendor lock-in and have become the gatekeepers to what is or isn’t allowed on your phone. Take Flash as an example. Thousands of websites use it and it certainly seems innocuous to allow Adobe to create an iPhone version, but Apple simply doesn’t allow it. Another example of Apple censorship was humorously noted by ars. In the article ars points out several apps that are lewd or even offensive that Apple allows and several that should clearly be fine that Apple mysteriously bans. In the end I think we should be able to make up our minds for ourselves.

Google shook the world when it announced its Android product. The world has been waiting for a truly open mobile phone. I for one would welcome it, but as you can see while Android may be open T-Mobile has purposefully limited it.

The United States needs to learn from other countries where cell networks are totally open. How do we shop for cell phones? We usually choose a carrier first and choose from their phones. In China, as well as most Asian countries, it is the exact opposite. You choose your phone first and worry about a carrier later. That is because it doesn’t matter over there. As long as the phone is compatible with the wireless company they’ll allow it on their network. And there there is no vendor lock-in: don’t like your carrier? switch all you have to do is change sim cards. It is not unlike how the internet or PC market is geared. With the internet as long as you have a network card and a valid IP address/gateway you are good to access the contents of the internet (it doesn’t matter who made it or where you purchased). In the PC market you are allowed to download and install any software you want, including some you may not want. Hopefully one day we will be there in the US, in the mean time head over to the EFF’s Free Your Phone website and sign the petition.


Google aiding in Net Neutrality

January 29, 2009

Net Neutrality is an interesting debate. I have to support it given the monopolized market in the US, but in reality it shouldn’t be needed because competition would iron out the wrinkles. In other words most people, if given a choice, would choose an ISP that doesn’t throttle traffic, but we, mostly, aren’t given a choice due to government supported monopolies for any given area in the US. In this election Obama has been a huge supporter of Net Neutrality and I tend to agree on most points. I would prefer to see the underlying problem fixed, but if I can’t have that I would prefer action to be met on this issue, and this is one of the campaign promises that I am going to hold Obama too. It could come to a head quicker than we think as Cox ISP has announced some pretty aggressive traffic shaping techniques. This is on top of Comcast that is currently in a battle with the FCC over traffic shaping.

It isn’t hard to figure out why Google would be a huge supporter of Net Neutrality, but even if such legislation would help them in the end it is, ultimately, good for the consumer as well. Goolge has launched the Measurements Lab which aims to help the consumer figure out what his ISP might be doing in terms of traffic. Ars has a very good round up of what is involved, but basically here is the list of what the tools are and can do:

Network Diagnostic Tool

Test your connection speed and receive sophisticated diagnosis of problems limiting speed.

Test whether BitTorrent is being blocked or throttled.
Network Path and Application Diagnosis

Diagnose common problems that impact last-mile broadband networks.
DiffProbe (coming soon)

Determine whether an ISP is giving some traffic a lower priority than other traffic.
NANO (coming soon)

Determine whether an ISP is degrading the performance of a certain subset of users, applications, or destinations.

It is good to see Google taking action on this front. The idea is that if you figure out that traffic shaping is taking place on your network you will take action and write your congressman. It also sheds light on what could otherwise be kept quiet from an unknowing public. As it stands now your ISP can do a lot with your traffic, and you have no way of knowing. This is a good first step.

Jobs Chumming with Gates

January 28, 2009

This is a great video that has been floating around and I just have to share it with you. Bill Gates looks like he is still in high school, but those were the good old days 🙂

Free Ubuntu Book

January 28, 2009

If you are looking to make the change to Linux now may be a better time than any. Linux is becoming more and more mainstream and more websites, including streaming, and developers are starting to support Linux. Not to mention that dropping over $100 for a new license of Windows seems crazy. Now the Ubuntu Pocket Guide and Reference is available free for download. This isn’t a joke or a gimmick this is the real guide absolutely free. So if you have been looking at Ubuntu and just don’t know where to start this is a great reference to look at, and best of all it costs you nothing.


Switching from Windows to Linux (Installing Applications)

January 27, 2009

Preston Gralla has a good article about tips for installing applications on Linux. It is very good and it is worth re-posting his main points:
1. Ask the community–No other OS has so much of the internet devoted to it. You can find thousands of sites, blogs, and forums devoted to Linux support or, even better, your specific distro support.
2. Don’t think of Linux as Windows–This is where most people fail and why most people think installing applications on Linux is so difficult. The problem is that we take our past experience and think it is universal, but it simply isn’t. In Windows you browse the web for the product you want, download an executable, and run and installer program. With Linux there is no exacutable so while you can download a .tar file after unpacking the file you won’t find a setup.exe. That doesn’t make Linux hard you just have to learn how Linux does it. I think we all forget how “hard” it was to install our first Windows program. As with everything in computers it just takes training. Personal story, when I first tried Linux I wanted to install firefox (at the time FF was still in alpha). I was such a Windows users, I went to the website downloaded the appropriate file and double-clicked it, thinking it would start to install. Instead it opened up the tar and showed me the contents, I figured that this must be the same as a zip file so I unpacked it to the desktop. Then I went in and started to look for an .exe or something, but I couldn’t find one and everything I double-clicked wouldn’t work. I don’t remember for certain, but I think I looked at the README, but their instructions were lost in translation. I was confused and defeated and thought that installing programs on Linux was just far too hard. My problem? I was thinking like a Windows person, in reality Linux installation may be easier than Windows you just have to learn how to do it in Linux.
3. Know your distro–this is a big one, that had I known would have made the previously mentioned story moot. I was installing Fedora at the time and it has a package manager built in called Yum. Debian and Ubuntu have apt/aptitude. For the most part just about any package you can imagine is already built into yum/apt and a few simple key commands installs the program for you. In my opinion this is far better than Windows. There is no browsing or second guessing you just open your terminal and type: sudo aptitude install package. How could it be any easier. And now both yum and apt have graphical versions so that you don’t even have to type in the commands. Imagine having a list of every program you could possibly imagine that with one click is installed on your machine and best of all they are all free.

For those curious about how to install an application on various distros here is a good forum link. If you break it down even installing from source isn’t all that difficult.

Open Source ‘LoggedOn2’ finds usernames for a domain PC

January 26, 2009

As the person essentially in charge of desktop support for a field office of about 100 users, I occasionally receive a phone call from a corporate network administrator who wants to know who’s using all the bandwidth, or who is downloading viruses, or the like.  Usually, they give me a NetBIOS name, and I take care of checking the user’s internet history and talking with them about their particular issue. 

More frequently that that, I have to track down a user who is using a particular resource.  For instance, this morning all of our available admin licenses for Alchemy (a document database) were in use, some by people who were idle for over an hour, and the person who really needed the license couldn’t get it.  But Alchemy only gives you IP addresses, not computer names or user IDs.  So I can use nbtstat to find the computer name from the IP address, but that’s still cumbersome.  In the past, I have had to make a spreadsheet (and keep it up to date) of which user has which computer.  It’s a good thing to have anyway, but I don’t need it for this process anymore.

Enter LoggedOn2.  It’s a simple (and incredibly fast) Delphi program that will grab the logged on user on any given box, either via NetBIOS name or IP address.  I tried a couple other alternatives, but this one was fastest and free.  The others either didn’t work (as in a VBScript someone posted), were too slow (one was trying to scan the whole domain for computers), or were shareware.  I don’t mind buying the shareware (and getting a 1.7 billion dollar company to drop 50 bucks for software isn’t hard) but this one works too well.  No installation needed, either. 

It is open source, so I did have a look at the source code.  I don’t write any Delphi, but I have enough knowledge to try to guess what it’s doing.  It looks like it checks the registry of the PC (under the HKEY_CURRENT_USER hive) for the domain ID of the user.  You do need administrative privileges on the remote machine (which you should have, if you’re an administrator).  It’s fast, simple, effective, and free.  Here’s a few screenshots:


 The main screen.  Click Scan Machine to continue…











Input the PC name or IP address, or select a computer from the list of domain PCs (which I conveniently blotted out)



 Output is the domain\username for the computer you entered (just like this screen, except instead of saying “domain\username” it would say “YourCompany\t_collins” or somethinglike that).  You can also click “Scan Domain” (if you have a small domain) and get the logged on user for every box.  This would make asset tracking especially easy as you could develop a list easily. 

Other features that would be great would be a comma-delimited or Excel report of all domain PCs and logged on users.  Especially great would be the ability to search by IP range so that I can grab only a few VLANs from our rather incredibly large domain.  At some point I would like to port this to Python, just for fun and to help my understanding of Python programming.

One minor annoyance (it’s a help too, but it’s annoying) is that the program is (in Windows terminology) “always on top.”  This is nice because I might be logged on to a server via RDP and need to grab an IP address from the server while switching back and forth between LoggedIn2 and the RDP session.  On the other hand, you have to minimize the window to get your screen back (it conveniently minimizes to the system tray).

This program is a great example of what old-school “hacking” was.  Make your own tool and use it to access the information you need.  Ah, makes me feel all nostalgic.

You can download LoggedOn2 here.  Does anyone have a similar program for Mac or *nix?

Using technology to help the poor

January 26, 2009

The nonprofit sector needs technology too.  And in the business of improving the world, technology makes impossible things possible.  In this case, one person has a vision to help the poor through music technology and Webcast.  I’m talking extreme poor.  Families who literally live in a dump outside Manila, in the Phillippines.  Check it out: