Cutting the cord for fun and profit: Smart TV’s and Streaming Devices

As a child I remember going to my grandparents home.  They had cable television, which was a big deal at the time since we had 1-3 channels depending on the weather and the placement of our homemade antenna.  I remember the box that sat on top, you would push down the buttons for the channel you wanted, it was amazing to have so much to watch.  I loved Saturday morning cartoons, and occasionally talking my mother into an evening cop show when we visited.

Apple TV

For our purposes assume this refers to the Apple TV Gen 4, the first with an app ecosystem.  With the exception of Amazon Video, thanks to a rumored disagreement between Tim Cook and Jeff Bezos, this is probably one of the more comprehensive ecosystems in the space, with new apps released fairly regularly.  From a user experience perspective, this is likely one of the better systems, in typical apple fashion, with an ecosystem of streaming services and games.  The biggest complaint on this device is the remote.  While it is larger than previous remotes, the touch remote features, while intuitive, it is tends to get bumped, and can be a pain to use with precision.

Roku

The latest Roku models are quite well done.  With a number of form factors, and quality levels, Roku strives to be all things to all people.  The comprehensive app store experience is good, as is the remote.  It is the right size for your hand, with a minimalist feel on the buttons.  One of the biggest features that made me really like this device is the headphone port on the remote.  On the subject of the remote, these generally use a proprietary wireless technology for the remote paring rather than IR, which is great if you want to hide the device, or just don’t have great line of site.  My biggest concern with the Roku is they are not backed by a large content company such as Amazon, Apple, or Google.  They do seem like an easy acquisition target, or possibly a company which could evaporate in the shifting ecosystem.

Smart Televisions

I want to like smart televisions, I really do.  I even purchased one, with a Roku built in.  My biggest concern is the processor speed.  In the several systems I have tested, my experience has been a little laggy.  Of course we are stuffing a mini computer inside an already thin TV system, but the user experience is critical to solidify adoption.  For most users this is probably a technology which is good enough, but still has a bit to go.

Chrome Cast, Fire TV, and open source

There are always other options, Google’s Chrome Cast is probably one of the more popular choices.  It is great except that it is simply a receiver.  A phone or computer becomes the remote control for the device, although content is streamed directly from the internet.  Amazon’s Fire TV is a good product as well, but it is very amazon centric.  As an Amazon Prime subscriber, I love all things Amazon, but this just doesn’t quite get my attention.  Kodi, and other open source systems promise to enable you to build your own, with their TV style interfaces, using a Raspberry Pi, or even a PC.  Again not bad, but this is probably one of the few areas I do not want to do it myself on.

 

The biggest issue with most of these devices is a lack of standards.  Developers have to choose what platforms to write apps for, and consumers may end up with several interfaces.  It really comes down to use case, and what apps do you anticipate using over the long term.  It will be interesting to see how many of these devices become a part of televisions, how many become a centralized device that streams to all screens in the house, and whether the television survives a generation more and more inclined to watch on phones, tablets, and computers.

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Cutting the cord for fun and profit: Smart TV’s and Streaming Devices

Cutting the cord for fun and profit: Streaming Services

In Geoffrey Moore’s book, crossing the chasm, he refers to those who jump on new technologies before the mainstream markets as innovators and early adopters.

crossing-the-chasm

For many products and services I a solid Pragmatist, waiting until there is significant adoption of the technology before I jump on board.  When it came to getting rid of cable television, I was absolutely a market innovator.  It wasn’t so much of a drive for new technology as my hatred of paying Comcast for something I could stream over the internet.  In this series I wanted to go through some of the choices I made on the way to cutting the cord, including services, streaming devices, and others.

Netflix

I was an early adopter of the Netflix DVD service, and an immediate adopter of their streaming service.  A number of the devices I purchased early in this process were because they supported Netflix Streaming.  In the past few years I have noticed significant decreases in the quality of the content available from legacy networks.  Fortunately the original content has been more entertaining, with apparent investment in new content becoming a priority.  The biggest advantage of Netflix is the number of devices available to stream it, and their recent introduction of offline viewing.

Amazon Prime Video

As a current subscriber to Amazon prime, I occasionally watch Amazon prime video.   The main advantage to Amazon prime is the original content, it’s inclusion in my subscription, and their pioneering offline viewing of content.  As someone who travels regularly this is a necessity.  My biggest complaint outside the lack of content is the limit on devices.  Due to apparent licensing disagreements there is no Amazon Video app for the Apple TV, a minor issue, but frustrating.

Hulu

I wanted to like Hulu, I really did, and at times I have used it to catch up on shows.  When they released their paid model for the Apple TV I tried it for a month or so.  My biggest complaint is they are essentially aggregating content from networks, much of which is accessible through separate apps, and the paid service still has commercials.  Hulu is good in concept, with some good original content, but is lost in the plethora of streaming services.

 

Streaming services are the future of television there is no doubt about it.  Live television is inconvenient, and for the next generation will likely be a forgotten relic, much like the cassette tape.  My biggest complaint is the lack of an aggregator, I use Plex media server for my personally owned content.  Unfortunately this means I need to select what I want to watch across several services, with more coming regularly.  While Apple is working on resolving this with the “TV” app on iOS and TVOS, this is proprietary, and limited.  The future of television and entertainment must come from fewer apps with more content, not the reverse.  It is an exciting time, as long as you don’t make your living providing cable television services.

Cutting the cord for fun and profit: Streaming Services

Killing Comcast: Data caps hurt customers.

With Comcast rolling out the 1TB datacap in several new markets, including my own in Oregon, I have decided to end my long term relationship with their internet service.

I have been a comcast customer almost continuously since retiring from the U.S. Army in 2003, I even spent a year working for the company managing datacenters and infrastructure.  Over time I have shifted my services to internet only opting for more and more streaming services,  using more and more bandwidth.  During that time, my internet only bill has increased from $30/mo – $95/mo with some increase in speed.  When I called to lower my bill I was informed that the only way Comcast would consider lowering my bill was if I bundled with their television product.  The net cost to me would be similar, which didn’t solve my problem.

I received numerous notifications about the cap, looking at the cost increase, which would put me around $145/mo based on my current usage.  Unfortunately I only have one other choice for internet service, Frontier Communications, which is not ideal, but it is Fiber.  Looking at my options, I found that I could trade my 105/10 for a 30/30 connection for $40/mo.  While it was much slower I opted to try it out.  So far 4 weeks in, no one seems to notice the speed decrease.

I waited about a week with the new service before canceling Comcast, I was braced for a fight.  Fortunately I was able to handle the disconnection through online chat.  It took about 15 min, there was a bit of back and forth with the rep trying to keep me as a customer, but when I held my ground he was surprisingly professional and courteous.

The overall transition has been mostly seamless, but the data caps still do not sit well.  I can only hope the public outcry will be enough to drive change, or better yet, maybe we will finally see more local ISP’s again.

Killing Comcast: Data caps hurt customers.

The Story of a Coin

Shortly before leaving the U.S. Army, I was assigned to an administrative role due to an injury.  I was a Military Policeman, and dreamed of being recognized for my exceptional performance in law enforcement.  I was frustrated about the administrative role, preferring to lead my law enforcement team. While my attitude was terrible, I made the role my own and created a number of systems to organize my section, gaining recognition of leadership several levels above mine.  For this work I received a coveted Challenge Coin, a token for a job well done, from a leader I highly respected; a humbling experience to say the least.  

There is no time like the present

“Dress for the job you want, not the one you have.”  I have heard this quote so many times, but it misses an important factor of success.  We should always be preparing for our next role by being exceptional in our current role.  It is easy to spend too much time time thinking about the future, and how great things will be when we just get to the next level.

Some of the best career advice I have ever received was during a new hire training.  “Be awesome at your day job, and pursue your passion.”  This is easier said than done, but when we focus on the task at hand, opportunities to pursue our passion tend to present themselves.  This can then give us an opportunity to pursue the job we want.

Positive attitude beats talent alone

With great power comes great responsibility.”  Ben Parker left us with this wisdom in the Spiderman series.  Peter, of course, is too wise for his uncle, until it is too late.  Ah the wisdom of youth; it is amazing how much we know when we are young and how much less we know as we age.  Pride is a tough thing, thinking you know better than those who have walked the same path is dangerous.

“If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”  My mother used this line with my brother and I so many times, and all these years later it is more true than it was then.  Sometimes our attitudes are the only thing holding us back.  Realizing that we can learn from everyone we encounter, having a humble attitude, and putting a smile on our face when we are ready to give up goes a long way.  Always looking for the good and positive in people and situations can help us grow and learn.

Seek outside perspectives

Writer Kahlil GIbran said, “When we turn to one another for counsel we reduce the number of our enemies.”  It can be simple to look at our leaders, or those we work with and think of them as the problem.  Going to them and asking for their advice, in a humble and honest way, is almost always a growth opportunity for us, and a way to remove a potential roadblock to our dreams.

King Solomon of Israel reminds us, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.”  Those who truly care about us, whether a spouse, a manager, or just a friend, will be willing to share the truth with us, but we must be willing to accept what they are telling us and act upon it.  We should all have people in our lives who will give us perspective, who care enough to help us work through our shortcomings, and who will keep us on our path to success.

I am thankful for the time I spent in the military, but as I reflect, I wish that I had been more present.  I spent too much time focused on things that were not important and I missed so many amazing opportunities.  My attitude was one of entitlement, they were lucky to have me.  I was frustrating to my leadership in many ways, challenging them when I should have realized they had my best interests in mind.  My biggest mistake though, by far, was thinking I had the answers.  Looking to those who were more experienced would have saved me so many arguments, and set my early career on a different path.

I carry the challenge coin with me now each day to remind me that I am where I need to be, and what I am doing is leading me to where I am needed next.  It is a small token, but we should all have something which reminds us that we are here to learn today, and we could all be a little more humble in our endeavors.

The Story of a Coin

Fun with Homekit

With the release of iOS 10, and homekit becoming a little more mainstream, I have finally begun to really take advantage of my homekit enabled devices.  It has been an interesting process, but I remain hopeful.

I wrote previously about my experience with my Ecobee3 Thermostat.  I purchased it instead of a competitor because of homekit specifically.  When I installed it, I didn’t really have a solid understanding of how homekit worked, and honestly didn’t take the time to research.  It worked through the app, and we were happy.

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Recently on the Home On podcast #075, Richard Gunther had the CEO of iDevices, Chris Allen, on his podcast to discuss the state of homekit among other things.  During the podcast Chris offered a limited giveaway of his companies connected switch, which I was fortunate enough to be a part of.  I decided to use it for the plug controlling our Pond pump, replacing an analog dial controller which always seemed to lose time somehow.

idevices-switchWhen I went to setup the switch, just prior to homekit, I couldn’t figure out why it was so spotty when I joined it to the isolated device wireless network I previously discussed.  When I added it to the primary network it worked well, and suddenly siri integration worked.  Then I tried to use siri with my Ecobee3 Thermostat, which failed because, you guessed it, it was on the isolated network.

This lead me to the whiteboard where I started digging deeper into how airplay, airprint, bonjour, and most of the other apple protocols work.  It occurred to me if apple is using MDNS for almost everything else, that would be the logical way for homekit to work, and MDNS requires that devices be on the same network segment.  (Yes I could have just read the instructions, but I am a guy.)  Once I placed all homekit devices on the same network, everything worked fine, siri was responsive most of the time, and with iOS 10, the home app was generally functional.

I have noticed that devices tend to stop responding sometimes, and need to be power cycled.  I am assuming this has something to do with the wireless, although the signal is not the issue.  There have also been a few oddities with devices not wanting to retain their config, but that may have been something in the setup I missed.

If I didn’t have so many apple devices I am not sure I would have gone the homekit route, in favor of more amazon alexa or google home ecosystem devices, but the simplicity of apple devices, as usual, is unsurpassed.  The integration will continue to improve, but for the price, homekit has me hooked for now.

Fun with Homekit

Remotely Managed Home wifi

“Oh you work in the tech field?  Can you fix my wireless?”  We all get this request, it is why I have started pushing friends and family toward chromebooks and iPhones.  They seem to be the easiest to troubleshoot when things don’t work as expected.  Wireless on the other hand has always been a challenge, trying to help someone remotely, to explain why their wireless doesn’t work.  With home networks now relied upon for home automation, home media, security systems, and normal web browsing, a $50-$100 wifi router is not likely to cut it any longer.

Recently I decided to put in wireless for my mother, who has never had internet access, and lives 2 hours away.  We wanted to get her an iPhone, but wanted to make sure the experience was optimal.  I did significant research on how to control the system remotely, and even debated trying to teach my mother how to manage the system.  For our home, I had already installed the Ubiquity Unifi System, so after some research I opted for the same system for the remote site.

The setup was pretty simple.  I opted for the Unifi Secure Gateway  for the firewall, I need to write an update on why I made that decision later, and the UAP-AC-LR for the access point.  I chose the Long Range model because I was more concerned with coverage than performance, and because the only use case was internet access, no network storage or local media servers.  I used the Raspberry Pi 3 unifi controller from my previous post, but I opted for a local controller, rather than running both from the one controller, although it is possible based on this support KB.  My concern was if there was an issue when I was not home with the controller, I didn’t want to lose access to both systems.  For the price, it seemed prudent to separate them.

Making changes to the system was exceptionally simple since Ubiquiti gave us the cloud controller.  I simply enabled cloud access on my existing system, and the new one, and voila, I have remote access to the controller with no VPN and no port forwarding.

screenshot-2016-09-11-at-20-47-32

 

To manage the system I go to the cloud management site, http://unifi.ubnt.com and login.  I am able to access both controllers independently, make any changes, and push those to the firewall or the access points.

capture-image

I even went so far as to install a TP-Link Smart Plug so I can remotely reboot the controller if it becomes non-responsive.  This became necessary after I made a change that caused an issue with the controller and required my son who lives nearby going over to reboot the controller for me.

As I tend to support family and friends wireless, it occurred to me this has a number of potential use cases.  For several years I have supported the wireless internet at our Church, which usually leads to me driving 30-60 min each way when there is an issue, thankfully not often.  I am also working on some projects for an orphanage we support in El Salvador, one of which is wireless.  As I continue to build out my home and extended family wireless, I am seeing further uses for this type of a system.  Simplifying the management, and making it remotely accessible will make my life easier, but also change the way others use technology.

Wireless internet is changing the way we interact, my mother is on Facebook finally seeing more pictures of the grandchildren than ever, her brother is watching old television shows and old car races he remembers from his child hood.  Young girls in an orphanage in El Salvador are getting a better quality education, and going on to improve their country with their own knowledge, not foreign aid.  Providing a remotely managed wireless system helps create more opportunities to learn and share, changing the way we communicate and takes much of the burden off those of us who support multiple family members and friends.

Remotely Managed Home wifi

Technical Presentations: stop waiting, just get started.

As I write this, I am leaving VMworld 2016. It has been an amazing conference, I was able to reconnect with friends, work in the Hands on Labs, and present a session focused on security in healthcare. This is my second year presenting at VMworld, another year of struggling to meet deadlines, building slides, and trying to make sure I was ready. I wanted to share my experience, my struggles, and my opinion on this, mostly to provide the community with some encouragement to get up and share your knowledge with the rest of us.

What topic would you want to listen to?

 

The best sessions I have found started with a conversation. This year, I was talking with my manager, bemoaning the lack of security in technical architectures. Sure we threw in the checkbox items, but we missed the larger picture. We always assumed security was a product, missing the point that it was a design principle. After some heated debate, we realized that almost every part of the VMWare product set related to security. I am not a security specialist, which we decided made the messaging even more powerful.

 

When you are thinking about what to present, think about what interest you. Make your presentations credible, make them interesting to you. If you are presenting something you are passionate about, you are going to be more engaging. The best presentations involve the speaker making wild gestures, modulating their voice, and end with heated friendly discussions. Passion is everything, and if you believe in what you are saying, the passion should be natural.

 

Ask for help!

 

One of my biggest mistakes this year has been not asking for help. I took on too many tasks, spent too much time debating content with internal teams who wanted to help, and didn’t ask for the help I could have used. I work in a company full of amazing smart people. I have met so many people on Twitter and other medium who would have loved to help. I wrote a majority of the presentation myself, and waited far too long to get more eyes on. The best thing I did was to join a local Toastmasters group which did help me with the speaking skills.

 

We have all started somewhere, and nearly all of us want to help. There are more opportunities than every to be involved in community. Having a speaking mentor, using Toastmasters, looking within your team are all great ways to get some help. There is no weakness in admitting you need help, and it is a great way to meet new people who often become life long friends.

 

Rehearse, Rehearse, Rehearse, then Rehearse some more

 

I can’t say it enough. Knowing your content is key. I am very cautious about memorizing my content, but I know the slides inside and out. I write out an outline with key phrases to jog my memory. By the time I got to VMworld I had rehearsed so many times my brain hurt. When I got on stage, I knew my slides, I knew my content, and I still forgot half the things I wanted to say. Imagine if I had failed to rehearse.

 

Rehearsing is not fun. Very few people enjoy standing in front of a mirror, or a camera, practicing their content over and over. Having someone give you feedback is thought to take, especially when you pour yourself into a presentation, but it sure beats getting negative feedback from your audience.

 

One of my favorite parts about being in the technology field is being a part of this community. Every conference, no matter how good the sessions are, the best thing is the reunion with all the people I have worked with and met over the years. While we may give each other a bad time, we are a big community, and we are all here to support each other. Presenting can be a terrifying thing, but all of us have an important story to share that will help someone else. Give back to the community, your community by getting involved. Tell your story, and grow your career, there are so many of us who want to help you, so what are you waiting for?
Technical Presentations: stop waiting, just get started.