A Consuming Experience

Blogging, internet, software, mobile, telecomms, gadgets, technology, media and digital rights from the perspective of a consumer / user, including reviews, rants and random thoughts. Aimed at intelligent non-geeks, who are all too often unnecessarily disenfranchised by excessive use of tech jargon, this blog aims to be informative and practical without being patronising. With guides, tutorials, tips - and the occasional ever so slightly naughty observation.

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Mobile, broadband etc price comparisons: Broadband Choices & SimplifyDigital accredited by Ofcom

Thursday, July 03, 2008
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When choosing or changing your mobile network operator, phone company, broadband provider or cable, pay TV or satellite TV company, it can be hard to be sure that you've got the most up to date information and that you compare like with like. There are many services around that claim to provide price comparisons, but how do you know how accurate they are?

To help consumers be confident that the price comparison calculator they use is reliable and up to date, in 2006 Ofcom the UK comms regulator launched an accreditation scheme for price comparison calculators with guidelines for applicants wanting accreditation for their price comparison calculator services - which can cover a range of telecommunications services from fixed telephone, mobile telephone, international roaming, narrowband internet, broadband, voice over IP and digital TV to bundled services.

Ofcom have now awarded their first Ofcom Price Accreditation Scheme kitemarks, to two companies:
They've each been accredited for fixed phone line, mobile, broadband and digital television services price comparisons. The accreditation is good for a year (i.e. until July 2009), after which it will be reviewed and a further audit conducted.

This means that they've both "met the terms of a rigorous independent audit. The audit assesses whether sufficient processes are in place to ensure that information provided to consumers is accessible, accurate, transparent, comprehensive and up to date.

Accredited schemes are also required to provide information in a format that is easy to use and understand, and, where they provide their services online, to also provide their services on the telephone or in writing."

So if you're planning to get or change your fixed line telephone, mobile, broadband or digital TV service, you can now compare the prices of these services or bundles of them (e.g. phone combined with Internet access or TV) from Broadband Choices or Simplifydigital and, as Ofcom put it, "be assured that these companies offer accurate, comprehensive, up to date information on prices in an accessible format." If you use a non-kitemarked services, as the Ofcom Consumer Panel put it "Consumers should be aware that if they use providers not kitemarked by Ofcom then they risk an inferior service".

Hopefully this will encourage more price comparison services to try to get an Ofcom kitemark.

For more on the kitemark, see the Ofcom Price Comparison Accreditation consumer FAQ.

(But note that Ofcom's accreditation is only for the listed comms services - it doesn't mean that price comparison services for finances, insurance or energy prices accessible through the Broadband Choices site have been accredited by Ofcom, for instance. There will be other services for those, e.g. the Financial Services Authority regulator recently launched free official comparison tables for payment protection insurance or PPI, and they've indeed got tables - more like wizards, really - for financial products like mortgages, savings accounts etc. Ofcom just deals with telecomms.)

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Blog carnivals: Mobilists #127

Wednesday, June 11, 2008
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A blog carnival is a good way for bloggers who write on the same general subject (anything from arts, health and politics to humour, science, technology etc) to help each other out. The idea is that each "edition" of the carnival is "hosted" by a different blogger, who receives submissions of posts from other bloggers, then pulls their personal selection of the best submissions together into a single post published on their own blog, with links.

That way the submitters benefit from extra publicity and links to their posts, and also the host's associated summaries of their posts, on the host's blog. People take it in turns to host, and internet search engines generally count carnival links for ranking purposes, even those (like Wikio) which ignore links in blogrolls.

I first heard about Carnival of the Mobilists from Vero at mobileCampLondon2007. As you'd expect, it's a carnival intended for bloggers who write about mobile phones, cellphones, the mobile space generally. While I don't specialise in mobile, I do often write about mobile-related matters (my posts on LG phones are consistently in ACE's top 5 or 10 most popular posts).

I submitted a post (my mobileCamp write-up, in fact) to the carnival, and Steve Litchfield kindly included it in The Smartphones Show's Carnival of the Mobilists #95. But - mea culpa (=my bad!) - I hadn't checked the rules of this carnival properly, because I'd tracked it down through this page or something like it, so I hadn't seen the rule that if your post gets listed in a Mobilist carnival host's post, you're supposed to link to the host's post and promote the carnival on your own site or blog that week - or you'll be universally hated by all! I just didn't link to the Carnival post that time because I hadn't cottoned on to that rule, so I'm trying to make up for it by linking to it now, albeit very belatedly.

I missed the deadline for a later submission to this Carnival (initial thoughts / review of 3's Huawei mobile broadband USB modem / dongles) and it didn't get selected by the following week's host - possibly because I was still universally hated then, or maybe because there's some kind of unwritten rule I've still not found that says only posts published in the current calendar week are eligible.

But perhaps I've finally been forgiven, because my review of the UrbanTool hipHolster for mobiles/gadgets (verdict: don't waste your money) has been selected for this week's Carnival of the Mobilists #127 at WapReview. So here I am, dedicating a post to help promote the carnival, with links to the host's post!

For this particular carnival, you're only allowed to offer to be a host if your entries have been selected for the carnival at least 3 times before.

But anyone can submit a post about things mobile to this carnival by emailing mobilists@gmail.com before midnight PST on Friday (for posts written earlier that same week only, I assume), so if you've written on a mobile / wireless communications topic and you'd like to join in, do just go ahead and submit your post and help both yourself and your fellow bloggers.

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UrbanTool hipHolster mobile phone holder review: more victim than fashion

Sunday, June 01, 2008
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How do you carry around your cellphone and other electronic gadgets without losing them, if you don't just want to stuff 'em in your pocket, hand / man bag, briefcase or backpack the old-fashioned way? If like me you've loads of little gadgets to carry round with you, and you're looking for the perfect holder, well don't buy UrbanTool products.

Krusell cases are I've found convenient for phones, but ideally you need to wear a belt to clip the case to. They're good e.g. for use at work (though they can break). But what if you want to cart around several gadgets, like the iPod & multiple phone-owning gadget fiend that you are?

UrbanTool's hipHolster belt sounded good to me at first. You can click it on and off quickly, as it has a fastening like a bumbag's, and it has several pockets built in for your many electronic toys like phones and digital cameras, etc.

However I really wouldn't recommend this stretchy cloth belt for your precious electronic stuff, because:
  1. It's expensive for what you get - about £28 currently - probably trying to milk the fashion victims who think it looks trendy

  2. It's not very strong or tough - the buckle is just made of flimsy plastic, the male end especially is easily bent out of shape e.g. by the weight of your toys, so the belt fastening can come apart and send your gizmos swiftly floorward (you'd think they'd use metal given the potential value of the gadgets that could be housed in it, but nope)

  3. It's not practical - the pockets are too small. The pockets do have stretchy covers you can pull over the gadget to hide and protect it (I moved the cover so you could see my phone sticking out in the photo above), but the design's badly thought through and the pockets are too small for some gadgets, it's strictly for smallish phones only. If they'd provided just one large pocket, maybe it would have been livable with.

  4. It's too fiddly for females - try going to the ladies while wearing this belt, and you'll see what I mean! Even without fastening the thigh strap, it still gets in the way - unless you take the whole belt off first and then put it back on afterwards, which is a big pain in the proverbial

  5. It's cheapo in quality though not in price - even if you think it looks kinda cool, it's just not that well built (see above); note that the "leather look" bits are artificial, not real leather, despite the price they charge

  6. UrbanTool's customer "service" are useless, never replying to any pre or post sales enquiries.

So, the idea seems great, but they're clearly going for fashion rather than practicality, and that attitude seems to permeate their entire range: a friend of mine had to send back one of their sports holsters bought for listening to the radio while running, as it just didn't do the job - too measly with the material, you could possibly squeeze your pet mouse in there if you're that lonely when you run, but not your Blackberry.

I believe it's possible for gadget holders / belts or holsters to both be practical and look decent - but UrbanTool seem to care only about looks. Strictly for fashion victims only. And "victim" is the operative word here, if you buy one.

So I'm back to Krusell cases, despite their penchant for falling apart.

What I really really want is a strong Wild West style hip belt for gadgets instead of guns in a tough material like thick leather, adjustable in length, with lots of strong gadget pockets of different sizes that close at the top (zipped preferably), and click-on/off fastenings for speed (no fiddly belt buckles and holes for me! ) made of steel for strength (both halves). Even a shoulder holster with pockets, which you can put on and take off easily, would be good. As long as there's at least one pocket big enough for my precious Psion!

Meanwhile, anyone want to buy an Urban Tool hipHolster cheap, only used a couple of times, and certainly worn with extra special care whilst in the ladies'...?

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Over the Air event: for mobile / wireless developers, designers, hackers and entrepreneurs

Monday, March 10, 2008
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Looks like signup is open for the Over the Air event on Friday & Saturday 4-5 April 2008 in London, organised by Mobile Monday London - it's free, sponsored by BBC Mobile (more on Over the Air, and schedule).

The Over the Air blog describes it thus: "Bringing together developers, designers, hackers and entrepreneurs to explorer the potential exciting future of wireless and mobile devices/applications... Over the Air is unlike any other event you have ever been to. Part conference, part un-conference, part open hackathon. The schedule has a place for everyone, hackers, developers, designers and entrepreneurs.... all aspects of mobile/wireless development and design. From development with SDKs available on Android, iPhone, Java, Compact dot Net, Symbian, etc. To designer insight into Mobile Flash, Social Systems, Mobile Widgets, Mobile SVG, Location, User Experiences, etc. We have almost everthing covered including Gaming, Network APIs, real-time communication, advertising, etc."

Looks like almost everything's going to be covered from Java and Symbian to the Apple iPhone SDK, Windows Mobile and Google/Open Handset Alliance's Android.

So I've registered, and yay I got a ticket!

Register now if you're interested.

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BarCampLondon3 video: from Web 2.0 to Mobile 2.0 - the transition

Sunday, January 13, 2008
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Another video from BarCampLondon3 held in November 2007, of a lively discussion whose title is self-explanatory, on how the mobile web might develop. Unfortunately I didn't get the name of the main speaker (I think he was German but there was a big contingent from Germany so that won't help narrow it down much!) - if anyone can tell me I'll update this post to add it. No slides were uploaded.

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BarCampLondon3 video: mobile data - what's "fair use"?

Wednesday, January 02, 2008
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It's taken me an age to process and upload the videos I recorded of various BarCampLondon3 sessions on 24 & 25 November 2007.

Here's the first, with the slides embedded below so those interested can follow them while watching the video.

It's about fair use in the context of flat rate mobile data price plans. Namely, price plans offered by mobile phone network companies where you pay a fixed amount every month for supposedly "unlimited" data (Internet - email, web etc) usage, but in their terms & conditions your usage is subject to "fair use". I.e. they call it "unlimited" but if you use "too much" of your upload / download bandwidth they can cut you off or charge you extra. Which isn't "unlimited" as far as I'm concerned! To me, mobile network companies offering "unlimited" data plans with a "fair usage" restriction are as bad as broadband ISPs which offer "high speed" services but advertise only their top speeds whether or not actually achievable for the individual user, particularly when it's not spelt out in large print what they mean by "fair use", which could differ from company to company. The powers that be are clamping down on the broadband ISPs and I hope they'll start doing the same for "unlimited" mobile plans, which really should be called "X MB a month" tariffs or the like.

Anyway here's the talk and discussion led by Sam Machin, who works for a mobile network operator but spoke in a personal capacity, on what is "fair use" in the context of flat rate mobile data price plans, and how usage under fixed rate or flat rate tariffs for data might be dealt with so as to be fair to consumers and network operators both. Thus it should be of interest to mobile service providers as well as users. As you can tell it's a subject close to my heart, from a consumer viewpoint, but I'll do a full post on the subject in future...

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Sony Ericsson mobiles: security risk

Saturday, November 17, 2007
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Many Sony Ericsson cellphones sold between 2005 and 2007, e.g. the K750i, K800i, K810i, T650i and W880i (which use a proprietary Sony Ericsson operating system rather than Symbian) are vulnerable to a security hole recently discovered by Adrian Nowak and Karsten Sohr, research scientists at Bremen University. This allows applications to read and write to system files, so they could e.g. replace certificates confirming the origin of programs to be installed:
"For the installation of malicious software, the user only needs to confirm that the software is allowed to read and write user data. According to the scientists this is also standard practice with trusted applications and doesn't, therefore, raise any suspicion ."

One upside: users could also use the security flaw to "replace the logos and ring tones installed for "branding" purposes."

Via Heise Security, who also noted that "It is still unclear whether the hole is located in the operating system itself or in the Java VM. The scientists didn't want to release any details to allow Sony Ericsson to fix the vulnerability. No statement has so far been received from the vendor."

Attacks on mobile phones are very rare, but still, if you have an affected phone, best not to install any software except from a site you absolutely trust in case it could be malware exploiting this hole. And hope that Sony Ericsson fix the vulnerability.

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MobileCampLondon 2007 videos & a Girl Geek perspective on BarCamp

Sunday, October 07, 2007
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(photo by Futurescape)

Where could you find a Brad Pitt-lookalike and a 6'6" tall (here's why he's lucky) Latino guy who's into kinky women? Why, at mobileCampLondon 2007 last weekend, of course. Who says BarCamp isn't for girl geeks?

You'll have to view the presentation videos or photos to figure out who I might possibly have meant. I'll even offer a prize to the non-attendee who works it out by 23.59 on Sunday 21 October 2007 - attendees are disqualified, I'll pick duplicate winners out of a hat. Entries on a postcard (or SMS text!) please, or preferably via a comment on this blog entry...

But lest you think girl geeks are only interested in just one thing - the weekend wasn't just about hacking mobile apps, nope. The wide range of presentations included the open mobile comms platform OpenMoko, mobile text to speech via Otodio, social mobile networks, and even wearable technology where you can hug yourself to give a friend a hug (if you're both wearing "hug shirts" and carrying Bluetooth phones), and I got a few ideas about what Psion 5mx replacement with usable keyboard I might get, or should avoid.

Overview of Barcamp

So, what was BarCamp like? Barcamp involves the concept of "user-generated conferences" run according to certain loose "rules". It was my first BarCamp ever, fun and fascinating but exhausting. I volunteered to wield my newish camcorder, bought especially for geek events - partly because I thought I'd be less likely to be caught in front of a camera if I was behind it, as I blog anonymously, and partly because I was a scaredycat about presenting (see rule 8 of the rules of BarCamp), plus again I thought presenters were more likely to get photographed or videoed.

As it turned out, no one went round saying "Aha! Newbie!" and forcing us to present at mousepoint (or even Powerpoint), so I needn't have worried on that score. Shame no one told me that people don't in fact stalk around BarCamp tying newbies to a chair in the middle of circling laptops and prodding them with laser pointers to make 'em talk.

The venue was a huge concrete-floored room provided by Fjord, in one of those tucked-away streets you'd never know existed till you had to find your way there, just off Carnaby Street in the heart of London. The room was huge in the floorspace rather than high-ceilinged sense, with a fun 3-walled bean bags area, but otherwise just partitions between different presenting and hacking spaces. Someone had come over all the way from Amsterdam to set up free wi-fi for the weekend.

The mobileCamp London event, organised by Victor Szilagyi, was sponsored by: and hosted by Fjord.

The idea with BarCamp is that, having signed up in advance on the Barcamp wiki, you turn up and sign in (and get your freebies from the sponsors!). There's a whiteboard with timeslots, and whoever wants to present just writes their topic and name against a slot (see pic above).

But hardly anyone had turned up at the scheduled registration time of 9 am except the poor volunteers who'd offered to help with registrations (hats off to Feren Calderwood and Nick Middleton!). The day was meant too kick off at 9.30 and I squeaked in at about 9.40 am, but in fact the first session didn't start till 10.30 am, no surprise there - sensibly no presenter had put their name down for any earlier slots. On day 2 I arrived at 10.30. I figured with free beer the previous evening I'd be one of the earlier ones. Amazingly, some had arrived for 10.

At the risk of making Tantek Çelik tsk tsk or even tut-tut, I have to report that, as you can guess, they didn't stick strictly to the rules of BarCamp - topics and names weren't written in presentation slots (a rule I really wish people had stuck to, and more), intro lengths were totally variable and definitely more than 3 words long, and presentation lengths didn't stop when they ran into another slot - the other slots just got moved to start later.

Cafetière coffee and small bottles of water were available all day, and even scones, thanks to the host and volunteers. But though coffee is a major food group for geeks, it did make for some hyperness especially as the room got quite cold, so if you wanted a hot drink you had to have a coffee. One of the presentations incidentally included a slide showing pics of webs woven by spiders who'd been fed marijuana, LSD, caffeine etc. Guess which webs were the worst? That's right - spiders on caffeine wove the most incoherent webs, they couldn't even manage more than a few random threads. Luckily, on the second day there was hot water and teabags, but I think my brain has only just about recovered from all that caffeine!

As a result of concentrating on videoing, I didn't get to chat with as many people as I'd have liked to, or (sob, wail, tearing of hair) play with as many prototypes - there was a 8GB Nokia N95 there, I heard. But still I managed to swap cards with some people, and even got a few LinkedIn invites after the event, which has prompted me to make a note to send out a few myself too.

What about the girls?

I was chatting with Sarah Blow (founder of the London Girl Geek Dinners and related blog), and we were both surprised and pleased that there were more geek girls there than we'd expected. But when "Ooooh, sooooooo many women!" means fewer than 10 out of the nearly 100 who signed up, that's still very telling about the IT industry. And at least 4 or 5 of the women there were from Fjord, the host, or from sponsors or speakers like Orange Partner and Cute Circuit. Hmmm, maybe girl geek attendance wasn't that good after all.

At the 2nd anniversary Geek Girl dinner (see also Maz's Girlygeekdom post and videos), one issue discussed was how at tech conventions often men wouldn't talk to the women until they had proved their technology credentials. Ironically, this story from last weekend proves the point (names withheld to protect the guilty and innocent!). A geek girl was talking to a guy at MobileCamp about precisely this subject, i.e. the way that the guys at that event were totally ignoring the girls, when 2 guys sat down opposite her, right next to the man she was chatting with. She said "Hi" to them, but they totally blanked her. She had to prove herself to be worthy of their time before they would even say a word to her: they listened in to about 20 minutes of her conversation with the guy she was talking to, before saying anything to either of them.

It is very disappointing that in this day and age that kind of attitude towards women still exists in such abundance in the technology industry. May I point out the following women who made great advances in technology that fundamentally affected computing/communications - and I'm just naming one per century, there are more:
  • 19th century - Ada Lovelace (daughter of Lord Byron) - who documented Charles Babbage's analytical engine, widely thought of as the first computer, and added notes which Babbage himself acknowledged corrected his mistake, with a specification recognised by historians as being the first computer program
  • 20th century - Hedy Lamarr - who co-invented a system of frequency hopping on which modern spread spectrum broadcast communications technologies are based, including wifi wireless networking and CDMA mobile telephony, and who was honoured by the EFF
  • 21st century - Wang Xiaoyun (home page) - who, with her team (including Yiqun Lisa Yin, another female scientist) cracked the two hash functions most widely used: at the end of 2004 SHA-1, an algorithm invent by the US National Security Agency and described by New Scientist as "the gold standard security algorithm that underpins online transactions" - it's used in digital signatures and other internet encryption protocols such as SSL, SSH and also PGP - and before that, she broke MD5. While it will still take a lot of computing power and a lot of time for this attack to succeed in practice, the fact is that she cracked it, and the search for a more secure successor is on.
Who says women can't compute?

Anyway, back to mobileCamp, I will say that the girl geek in that story wasn't me. But then if I really want to talk to someone I usually just go up and corner them where they can't get away, as I'm used to most people not coming up to talk to me - and that includes women, so I think it's more than just my gender which puts them off approaching me. Maybe it's the 666 tattooed on my forehead. Go figure.

Moving on, here's a different story, which might show how males and females approach tech quite differently - or might not! Being a keyboard fan, my fave gadget is my Psion 5mx for productivity and play on the move, and I'm still looking for my dream gadget to replace it, oh arrrr, nothing can beat the good ol' gadgets we had in my time, arrrr. I bugged the Nokia boys and others about why phone handset manufacturers don't build a phone with an "in between" form factor - bigger than the teeny-keyed Blackberry or Nokia N95 (or even E90 - just a tad bigger than an E90, please!), but smaller and lighter than a UMPC - i.e. exactly like the Psion 5mx, especially the patented sliding keyboard which you can touch type on, combined with mobile phone and updated with colour screen, wi fi, etc.

The guys all thought there w