Wednesday, December 27, 2017

VAST Networks

I am incredibly proud of the work my company, VAST Networks, has done. As the CTO, I am responsible for

  1. Continuously rearchitecting the network to deliver robust and varied services
  2. Deploying new hotspots
  3. Exploring and finding more efficient, cheaper and/or more scalable ways of deploying new hotspots
  4. Supporting and maintaining the hotspot locations
  5. Developing and keeping current products and overall network health


Our work over 2.5 years has resulted in us winning the Best Wi-Fi Service Provider in the World 2017, and Most Affordable Service Provider in the World 2017 as recognised by Wi-Fi Now. We were also shortlisted for Best Wireless Infrastructure in the World by the WBA, which we lost to Cisco. Not bad company to keep if you’re going to lose.


However, what I am most amazed by is the lack of interest in our local market in our products and/or services, when we seem to be smashing the lights in almost every metric that counts;

  • Page impressions
  • Unique visitors
  • Concurrent visitors
  • Session lengths / durations and repeat custom
  • Network throughput
  • Captive portal load times
  • Redundancy and resiliency of the network
  • Different on-boarding methods


Why is it that South African media and mobile companies haven’t woken up and exploited the network that is already there ? I am also convinced that local media/press only advertise companies or recognise innovation in success from people who advertise with them. Pathetic behaviour and so much for the “impartial tech press”.

Apple iPhone X - revolutionary ?

I don’t think Apple makes a great phone. I don’t think Apple makes a great smartphone. Apple does make a reasonable phone, and a reasonably good smartphone. The combination is good enough for most people, and easy enough that they’re willing to live within the constraints in order to get something that “mostly works”.

Today, Android users fall into three categories;
  1. They can’t afford an iPhone
  2. They have a philosophical hatred of Apple, a philosophical love of absolute customisability, have some specific technical requirement that dictates Android or some gradient in between
  3. They simply don’t know or care enough to make a decision of one platform over another

And for the most part, app developers have worked out that 1 and 2 exist, and so have solved the problem by building for 3. There isn’t an app that I use more than once a month that doesn’t exist in some shape or form on both platforms, with equal utility. I do occasionally (and hate the experience almost immediately) fire up Windows phone to see what that is doing, and on that platform you realise how close Android and iOS are in reality in terms of usable applications.

The iPhone X is a rather revolutionary take (as far as Apple goes) on design and UI; none of the reasons people don’t like Apple are eradicated. Those users who had decided / chosen Android actively over Apple won’t buy an X. But those users who simply don’t care, and can afford it, might and probably will. Is it revolutionary ? For Apple, yes. For the industry, not really.

Its physically well sized, sitting comfortably between what we today consider compact and large. This is the "large phone" from 5 years ago. The FaceID system actually works very well, and you get used to the gesture-based system replacing the missing home button.

I am really enjoying mine.

Apple AirPods - amazing!

I didn’t want to like the Apple AirPods. I thought they looked stupid, and overpriced.

But I succumbed, and bought a pair last week. Man, the pairing is magical, and the simplicity of switching from two buds, to a single bud, back to two buds, is amazing.

There are some snags; it doesn’t as magically pair to my MacBook Pro, but between iOS devices its absolutely seamless. Very neat!

On to sound quality; I’m afraid its not all roses in this department. Muddy, too much mid-bass, not enough treble. Audiophile ? Nope. You can see someone in the Beats department was doing QA.

But still a good investment; they’re pretty, pair easily, don't sound bad and are compact.


Update: about a month later, still LOVING them and they’re in use daily. Sublime!

Update2: the pairing with computers is crummy / inelegant, and the pairing with iPad’s also leaves much to be desired. But streets ahead what else is out there.

Update3: My wife thinks they look crap, but agrees that paying double for the B&O’s is extravagant.

Google Pixel XL2 - evolutionary

I really liked the very natural shift from the Nexus line to the Google Pixel range. I really liked the Google Pixel XL, and thought it would be a hard act to follow up.

But Google had to as the annual relentless march of the device treadmill continues, and the Google Pixel XL2, despite the almost non-existent lack of changes in the physical appearance, have managed to do something that feels evolutionary and natural as a successor. The screen seems more natural to the eye, although that seems to have been rather controversial.

Its faster, the screen is better, the battery life seems longer, and there are just overall some nice software changes. The always-on nature of the screen is pretty awesome. The squeeze-to-summon Google Assistant is gimmicky, good for a single-show party trick. I admittedly haven’t used the camera much, being one of the highlights of the phone. Overall, a good device. Good enough to change from a Pixel XL ? Nope.

2017 Tech updates

Its been a while since I posted updates. I'm going to post in short form what changed / what I played with as an update.
  • I was debating changing my MacBook 12" for a 13" Pro with Touch bar. I did. It was not transformative. The Touch Bar, while cool, is a gimmick. You don't actually use it that much. About the only thing that is useful is the TouchID fingerprint scanner, which I do use often. The is useful. Other than that, the notebook resolved my main gripes with the 12", namely speed/grunt, and ports. The new Pro has plenty of both.

  • I upgraded my Bose QC3's to QC35's. If the QC3's were good, the QC35's are simply sublime. And I don't experience the bass issues that seem to be widely discussed. Good battery life, extremely comfortable; my absolute go-to on flights and when I want uninterrupted listening. I did contemplate the Sony equivalents, but the Bose just seemed to have better build quality and class sound. Boo to the disparagers!
  • I ended up buying a single discreet Bluetooth headset, for ad-hoc listening. The Rowkin Mini Plus headphone is absolutely discreet, well built and a good purchase for the price. Solves a gap for that "something to do while my kids/wife are busy and I have 5 minutes to kill"
  • A massive win in terms of WiFi gear that I've been playing with is GL-Inet. Its like a Swiss-army knife of AP's. It can be a bridge, repeater, router, AP, OpenVPN client-termination device, can use a phone as a modem and solves the hotel "captive portal" / multiple device problem. A definite winner!
I’ve played with a lot of gear, devices and software. Nothing so impressive as to merit a review.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Apple MacBook 12"

I have had a few Apple notebooks; I've tried using Dell and HP's during the same time period, but I always revert back to the Apple machines. Its more to do with UNIX than with the hardware.

  • I started out with a 15" Apple MacBook Pro in 2006. This was a great machine; stable, beautiful and one click access to the CLI
  • I then changed to a 11" MacBook Air in 2011. A bit small, and underpowered - a mistake
  • A 13" MacBook Air later in 2011 was a good compromise, esp when paired with a 27" iMac. This was the beginning of my current computing paradigm, which is a current daily driver / travel machine paired with a slightly older (and MUCH bigger screen) desktop
  • The 13" MacBook Air was replaced with a Retina 13" Pro and the iMac got upgraded in 2013
I frankly didn't see the need to change from my 2013 Retina 13" Pro, until I started traveling frequently last year. Carrying around the 13" Pro seemed too much, so I bought a 12" MacBook. 

It has massive pro's, and only two con's;

  • Pro - the chiclet keyboard has been derided, but new Apple notebooks are coming with it so better get used to it
  • Pro - the big touchpad is pretty awesome to use
  • Pro - its light and small
  • Pro - the retina display is beautiful
  • Con - single USB-C port
  • Con - performance is spotty and a smidgen too slow
While this has been derided as an iPad with a keyboard, its actually quite useful. But having a single USB-C port is simply damn stupid. So, I'm considering the new 13" Pro's with the touch bar.

Its a significant cash investment, and I'm considering waiting for the upgraded version of it, esp with Kaby Lake processors. Decisions :-(

Apple iPhone 7+

I've been using an Apple iOS device as my daily driver phone for quite a while now. Initially, I felt quite limited doing so because Apple seemed to be so far behind on the customization and flexibility, but the app developers make it compelling because initially they tend to release first on Apple, if not exclusively.

In my last related post, I had a iPhone 6+. Like a lemming, I upgraded to the 6S+. The touted difference was the ability to push harder or softer on the screen to achieve a myriad of different actions based on how hard you pushed; not features I really use frankly, and I didn't really notice much of a difference other than the thing now being a lot heavier.

Like a faithful lemming, I've upgraded to the 7+. It does have a bunch of differences (color, faster, etc), but the two key ones for me (and the reasons its worth getting frankly) are;

  • Its waterproof - I'm not a surfer, but knowing that I can get the thing wet and not stress / lose data is a big deal
  • The second camera being used to create portraits with good bokeh and/or being able to zoom in quite closely is very useful on a daily basis

If you're debating getting one, don't debate too long. Apple has clearly reached the point where massive steps in innovation are not present. But, the incremental ones are not bad if you skip generations (i.e. buy, skip the next one, buy, skip the next one, buy)

Google Pixel XL

I have always had a soft spot for Android phones. It caters to the inner geek in me, or if I have to be totally honest, the geek I used to be. Massively customizable, almost every aspect tweakable, and you can get to a command line prompt within a few seconds.

I always preferred Google's own interpretation of Android, through their Nexus line. The last Nexus device, the 6P made by Huawei, alongside the excellent 5X made by LG, were great devices.

But, their hardware was clearly from a 3rd party, and while Google had influence in the software, they only had heavy influence and not absolute control of what you held in your hands. With the Pixel range, Google clearly aims to change that. I am currently using an XL, which as it claims, is the bigger of two devices.

The hardware manufacturer is not highlighted, and this is first and foremost a Google device. What are the key differentiators from Nexus devices ? Frankly, little to nothing other than 24/7 support directly (ostensibly) from Google. No self-respecting Android user would go for Android support to anything other than xda forums. It is also the first phone to ship with the Google Assistant, which is theoretically a context-aware AI that is meant to be a personal assistant in your pocket.

My experience is that Google Assistant is good as a product for techies; I think its got a year or three before usage becomes even remotely mainstream. What is clear is that by adding it into a phone, and making it available in Google Home (which I have ordered and funnily enough is the first device that has my wife's attention i.e. she wants it), we should see the AI engine improving exponentially.

Its a good device; is it good enough to replace your Nexus ? No. Is it better than a Samsung ? Much harder question. I'd say the S7/S7 Edge only have the advantage due to waterproofing and SD card. But, because I don't store much on phones and am generally always well connected (and have lived without a water proof phone this long), its not a big swing for me. Getting software updates and releases first, is.

Fibrehoods FTTH rocks!

I was a very happy user of Neotel's NeoBroadband fixed-LTE service, but at R2000 for a 10Mbit/s service, thought it was overpriced by at least 50%. Fibrehoods has come into my area, and I now have a 100Mbit/s service for exactly half of what the LTE service.

I cannot express how transformative FTTH is versus any other home connectivity medium. US users can equate to cable; all the characteristics that count are the same - stable service, low latency, little to no downtime, etc.

I am very happy with it!

Amazon Fire TV stick

I've always struggled to find a decent media playing solution while on the move. I think I've cracked the problem, with an Amazon Fire TV stick.

By default, its locked to Amazon's Prime ecosystem of video and pictures. And this ecosystem is fairly decent and I consider it to be good value. But, because it runs Android underneath, and has access to Amazon's App store, you can quite easily and relatively simply dramatically increase its usefulness.

My suggestions on what to install and how to do this ?

  1. Plex (from the Amazon App store) - access your home media library
  2. AirPin (from the Amazon App store) - turn your device into a cheap AirPlay-compatible device
  3. Sideload a bunch of apps - this is the frankly illegal stuff, so you can read up how to do it yourself
    • Terrarium
    • Popcorn Hour
    • MX Player
    • Kodi
      • 1Channel
      • Alluc
      • Exodus
      • Filmon.TV
      • Gobble
      • Navi-X
      • Phoenix
      • Stream all the sources
Once complete, Internet media streaming happiness ensues :-)