technology

Is IP TV Really Ready for Primetime?

Last night YouTube TV went down for an hour. That’s not YouTube the platform, but the premium TV service that YouTube offers customers in the US a range of broadcast TV channels in exchange for a monthly fee. The service went down right in the middle of the England v Croatia World Cup semi-final in Russia.

Every time a set of major sports rights comes up for sale, there is more and more discussion about whether a major internet platform like Amazon, Facebook, Google or Apple will be bidding. So far, there have been a few toes dipped in the water. Amazon has a small package of Premier League games from the season after next; Amazon also has ATP tennis in the UK from next year, and has had a few tennis tournaments this year; Amazon has streaming Thursday Night NFL rights, sharing them with free-to-air and pay-TV ; Facebook has bought Premier League and La Liga rights for a handful of Southeast Asian countries.

But at the same time, there are ongoing problems with many of these streaming technologies. In Australia, Optus had massive issues with its World Cup rights as I’ve mentioned previously. They’ve ended up refunding subscribers, and allowing all their games to be shown on free-to-air broadcast TV. ITV Hub has had various issues during earlier games in this World Cup (although I’ve seen few reports for the semi-final last night). Hulu’s stream of this year’s Super Bowl went down towards the end of the game. There are plenty of other examples.

Streaming is hard, and the resources to ensure no breaks are not to be understated. You might get angry if you can’t stream an episode of GLOW on Netflix because something between Netflix and your ISP isn’t working right. The worst that might happen is that you have to wait a bit and watch it later. But that’s not a remotely satisfactory solution for live sport.

If a company the size of Google can still have a major outage during a global event like the World Cup, then you know that this isn’t easy. During the Sweden v England quarter-final, the BBC reported a record 3.8m live streams at one point. And of course, there were also reports that the stream fell over towards the end of the game for some.

It’s notable that for the World Cup, the BBC’s UHD streaming experiment was initially limited, to ensure that those who got a stream weren’t going to be disappointed half way through when too many other viewers caused the whole system to fall over (Of course, viewers would quickly find out that they were well behind other versions of the picture meaning that you could be hearing your neighbours cheering a goal minutes before you saw it yourself).

The same fixture had broadcast viewing figures of over 19m, with many more watching in pubs and at outdoor events. And while we need to be careful about comparing audiences (1 stream does not equal one viewer; they are not measuring exactly the same thing), it’s clear that the vast majority still watch via the more robust broadcast systems. The question is, for how long?

Talk to a TV engineer and you’ll begin to understand why broadcast is still better. The Freeview transmitter network is very robust with built-in redundancy to ensure that TV channels’ signals reach local transmitters. While local transmitters can fail, these tend to be extraordinary events, and their “up time” is high. If the transmitter is working then the only reason you don’t get a picture at home is down to your set-up (e.g. a faulty antenna on your roof). Satellite transmission is also remarkably robust – with perhaps only extreme weather causing picture degradation.

With IP, there are many places that the system can fail. Broadcasters are reliant on large Content Distribution Networks (CDNs) to distribute programming. And that complexity increases with live. Then there might be a local problem with your “exchange”, or even the local fibre cabinet near to your street. Perhaps your the free router your ISP gave you has failed. It can be hard to diagnose, and there are many potential points of failure.

For the most part, service will probably resume quickly. But just how quickly is another question.

I’m not arguing that IP can’t fix some of these problems, or be more robust. But I do think that it’s going to be a significant technical challenge, with many parties involved, and broadcast is better in many respects. From a broadcaster to transmitter might only involve a couple of specialist companies. The pictures arrive faster, and there are fewer places for things to break. One viewer or 30 million viewers? It makes no difference.

On the other hand, some future live event will take the record for streaming again, but these will be more worrying moments as systems are put under bigger pressure than ever before.

I’m not ready to give up broadcast as efficient video and audio propagation methodology just yet.

Google Podcasts

Without an enormous amount of fanfare, Google yesterday launched Google Podcasts for Android yesterday, with the possibility of being game changing. I’ve long argued that for the Android/iOS podcasting gap to be closed, Google needed to get involved and create a generic app.

Apple Podcasts is a pre-installed app on every iPhone sold, and with strong backing of podcasts from the outset via the iTunes store, Apple users have consumed podcasts at a far greater rate than Android. Even today, with iOS share slipping slightly, the proportion of podcasts consumed by iOS devices is massively out of kilter with smartphone ownership. In most countries in the world, there is a higher Android user base than iOS.

All of this means that, unless we somehow infer that your choice of smartphone is a strong indicator for how you listen to audio, then there is a massive untapped Android market out there.

Previously Google has only played a little in the podcast arena. They added podcasts to Google Play Music. But only in the US. And podcasters themselves had to add their podcasts into Google Play Music themselves. A combination of those two things meant that that ex-US podcasters who wanted to list their podcast with Google had to go out of their way to employ VPNs to even get their podcast registered. Furthermore, Google Play Music cached audio meaning that podcasters couldn’t see a comprehensive picture of their podcasts’ performance across a range of platforms. Furthermore, newer technologies like dynamic advertising wasn’t possible. The advert baked into the podcast when it was captured by Google remained there in perpetuity.

Google just wasn’t taking podcasts seriously. But that was obviously changing and when Pacific Content published their series of articles on Google’s new podcasting drive earlier this year, things Google had been doing began to come to light. Although the scale of podcasting continues to grow, with more people and organisations releasing more podcasts, and more revenues being derived from them, it was perhaps the growing importance of audio to Google itself that has really pushed things along. Google’s Home and Home Mini devices have been massive sellers, with the company locked in a battle with Amazon’s Echo for grabbing market share in Voice (Despite Apple’s Siri being first to market, Apple is playing a massive catch-up game in this market).

Voice control has come to be an important way we interact with technology with both our phones and our devices in our smart homes. Machine learning has meant that voice comprehension and contextual analysis has rapidly improved. And from there music and speech are perhaps growing in importance. So podcasts fit in neatly.

All of this explains why Google’s new podcast app, isn’t actually an app at all. It’s really a view of Google Assistant. For quite a while now, you’ve been able to ask your Google Home device or your phone to play a podcast. This “app” therefore just makes this a little cleaner.

In fact the app is actually pretty basic. The average podcast app you can download on the Play store is likelier to be much better featured than Google Podcasts. Even something as basic as downloading podcasts for offline listening – the absolute bare minimum you need for any podcast app – requires you to change permissions in a truly bizarre way. Instead of getting a pop up permissions dialog box as you’d expect from recent Android iterations, you’re taken to a user-unfriendly App info page where you have to choose Permissions and then turn on Storage. It really isn’t very obvious, and I suspect many will fall at the first hurdle.

The rest of the app is very basic. The “Top Podcasts” are all very obvious and popular US ones: This American Life, Serial etc. And then all the usual suspects are in each of the category selections. The only two non-US podcasts I saw were the BBC’s World Cup Daily and The Guardian’s Football Weekly podcast. There was a Five Live section for me, which may have been because I subscribed to a Five Live podcast through the app in testing.

Now to be fair, this isn’t necessarily a terrible idea to highlight the podcasting big hitters. If you’re just discovering podcasts, then you probably want to listen to all the favourites. And equally, I don’t really know of any app that is very smart at selecting podcasts for you. Indeed, for all it’s revered elsewhere, I find even Netflix misses much more than it hits with selections for me.

Obviously a key benefit that Google Podcasts does have is that if you start listening on, say, your Google Home Mini and then leave your house and listen via your phone, you can carry on where you left off. But in the time I’ve tried the app, I’m unlikely to leave PocketCasts as my podcasting app of choice, which also lets me move between phone and its desktop web app. For smart speakers, I tend to use Cast to keep things in sync and stay on top of which episodes of which podcasts I’ve listened to. It has other much deeper functionality that Google’s offering lacks. This is probably purposeful on Google’s part, and other app developers will probably be relieved.

None of this is to say that Google Podcasts isn’t very important. Any podcast creators should build links to Google Podcasts as soon as possible, include their badges and generally make sure they’re listed correctly. Podnews has a decent FAQ about what you need to do. At the very least, when people share a podcast socially, they can now include a Google URL as well as an iTunes one (NB. They should still really share a link to a website where a range of options are available including the podcast’s unique RSS feed).

However, I’m not sure this is going to be quite the game changer it might have beene. I don’t see the app being pre-installed on phones, and I suspect that most of those who’ve installed already are those who are already very familiar with podcasts. Yes, it’s true that the podcast functionality will be pre-installed in that it forms part of Google Assistant. But it’s not clear that Google is pushing a page as a destination, in the way you might go to the YouTube homepage to see what new videos have been published, or you would open Spotify to purposefully listen to music.

That said, podcast usage is going up – there are some good global numbers in the most recent Reuters Digital News report (Interestingly, the UK is at the lower end of the range with 18% listening to podcasts a month. In South Korea for instance, it’s 58%!), and this initiative can’t but help drive that listening upwards.

One really interesting area Google is planning to tackle is the idea of creating subtitles (or captions) for podcasts using Google’s AI. Relatively few podcasts have transcripts of their programmes, and that makes searching the content within them very hard. If Google can auto-create these, as it does for many YouTube videos, then that makes the power of its search that much better even if the original podcast doesn’t have good meta-data. Users could jump straight to relevant section within a podcast. However this does raise questions of accuracy, and perhaps more so, intellectual property in ownership of those virtual transcripts (Cf All the arguments surrounding Google’s book-scanning initiatives). That all said, I’m unaware of anyone raising those issue with YouTube videos.

In summary then, a good first proper move by Google. They’re going to treat podcasts as essentially search assets, but using their Assistant to ensure that you keep track of what you have and haven’t listened to. However, I wouldn’t expect a significant overnight increase in the number of podcasts served. But podcasting overall continues to see steady growth, and this will undoubtedly help.

Facebook Pixel Tracking

This morning Nieman Lab had a really good piece asking whether if there was a certain amount of hypocrisy coming from certain news organisations castigating Facebook for leaking data, when at the same time they’re helping Facebook collect more data on you.

Recall yesterday, when I said that some of Facebook’s data was missing from the download, and I highlighted Facebook Pixel? Quora is a good place to go and have a look (Note: Quora itself has a Facebook cookie):

The pixel is a transparent, 1×1, unique image file that can be embedded on pages outside of Facebook (unique = 1 per advertiser account). That image file, however, sits on Facebook servers. So, each time it is loaded, it increments counters on Facebook’s side.

And each time the pixel file is being seen by a user… Facebook servers can see which browser is used, which machine and which IP address. In other words, they are able to reconstruct that signature – they know which Facebook user has seen the pixel.

In essence, the Facebook Pixel lets you then target people who visit your site when they’re back on Facebook. And of course, Facebook now knows that you’ve visited a particular site, deepening the picture they hold on you.

And Facebook also has the Facebook Audience Network, which basically extends Facebook’s advertising business beyond the bounds of the Facebook website. In particular, they’re targeting mobile sites and apps.

Using the EFF’s excellent Privacy Badger browser plugin, I looked at some of the UK and US’s biggest news websites to see which ones allow Facebook to track you. This obviously isn’t a comprehensive list, but it gives you an idea.

Sites with Facebook Cookies

  • The New York Times
  • The Washington Post
  • Forbes
  • The Daily Mail
  • The Sun
  • Metro
  • The Times
  • The Economist

NB. These are at time of writing.

It must be said that I’ve not really gone into detail about Facebook’s business model here, but it gives you an idea.

And there’s a wealth of data being collected by many companies beyond Facebook – and a multiplicity of ad tracking cookies going around. Upwards of 20 cookies on a website is not unusual. Sometimes they’re just there for analytics purposes. All the advertising networks use them, with Google and Facebook being by far the biggest networks globally.

And there can be good reasons to use tracking cookies. This very site uses Google Analytics to count the number of people who visit, for example. I’ve embedded Vimeo videos and Flickr images on this site, and they have tracking codes built into the code I copy to this site. If you comment, there are various ways you can log in, and they have tracking codes too. I’d prefer there not to be, but if I want to properly use those sites’ services then I have to play ball with them.

While everyone kind of knows that the pair of shoes they looked at over lunch, but didn’t buy, is now following them around the internet, and that must be using some kind of tracking information, I’m not sure that many of us really understand how widespread this is, and how much data is being captured about us.

[Update: In related news, Mozilla has announced a Firefox plugin that stops Facebook tracking you around the web. Useful if you’re not already using something like Privacy Badger or Ghostery.]

Is Netflix Quite As Smart As Everyone Says It Is?

That’s possibly a provocative title, but I’ve come to the conclusions that while Netflix is very good at some things, I’m not certain that its recommendation engine is entirely as linked up as you’d think it’d be.

A couple of recent cases in point.

I was really looking forward to the new Alex Garland film, Annihilation. While I was slightly disappointed it wasn’t getting a cinema release, I was very pleased that Netflix was investing in it (well, buying the rights), and making it available to its subscribers. I dutifully searched for it ahead of its 12 March release, and added it to “My List,” Netflix’s somewhat clunky system for saving things you want to watch.*

Although I believe the film was made available at midnight UK time, but I waited until Monday evening to open the Netflix app on my Nvidia Shield and settle back to watch. I thought that they’d probably have the film front and centre when I opened the app. After all, it was a big coup them getting it. Plus I’d explicitly added it to my list.

There was no sign of it. It wasn’t in trending (too early I guess), or in any of the top lists of things I might want to watch. I ended up using Search to find it. It was – but hidden.

Then over this past weekend, while I was out and about, I got some Instagram advertising for a film called Paradox with Darryl Hannah and Willie Nelson. I’d not heard of it, but clicked through and saw video for some kind of western themed film. “I might watch that,” I thought – vaguely intrigued. Netflix are obviously promoting it, I’d catch up with it at some point.

Later, with that thought having drifted out of my head, I did open Netflix again in search of something to watch. Had I spotted Paradox, I’d have at least given it a second look.

But it wasn’t there. Or more to the point, it wasn’t obviously visible. In any case, because a film I’d seen promoted precisely once, was no longer in my view, I didn’t search for it. I only remembered this at all because I saw a second Instagram ad for it earlier today.

But again, it feels like Netflix is being a bit slow and doesn’t have all its ducks lined up. It’s not that I don’t think they can do some clever stuff, but they’re not as good as they make out.

Have you heard of a Danish comedy drama called Rita? Maybe if you’re Danish, but otherwise, you might not have. Netflix never recommended it to me. It was someone on Twitter who noticed it. It’s very amusing.

I started watching a Spanish series called La Casa de Papel. It’s a series about a gang of thieves who try to rob the Spanish Mint. It starts well, but like another Spanish series I saw on BBC Four last year, the strong hook doesn’t last the course, and we end up with an interminable number of episodes where not a lot happens, and the villain is really villainous. More plot and fewer episodes please Spain. I mention this because after I’d watched a few episodes on Netflix, the series promptly changed its name. It’s now called “Money Heist,” although it wouldn’t be obvious to those like me who’d started watching it under another name entirely. I had no idea what Netflix had done!

I’m always suspicious of over-claims about how briliant someone’s algorithms for discovery are – mainly because I’ve yet to experience anything that’s really that good. Amazon is pretty bad at recommending me books I didn’t tell it about, and music recommendation engines are pretty poor in my experience – especially if you move beyond the obvious.

Maybe they work for some, but I’m underwhelmed.

* I say it’s clunky, because it’s incredibly binary, and doesn’t allow you to make lists for different things. Furthermore, when you watch something that was on the list, it doesn’t then remove that item from your list. I’m also not aware that Netflix alerts you when something that’s on your list is shortly to be removed. Another useful feature.

Pixel 2 – Review

Note: I’m calling this a review, but frankly, it’s still early days, and there’ll be lots of things that come out in the wash further down the line. So think of these more as some initial thoughts. Not that any of this stuff prevents other sites posting reviews after less than a week’s worth of use.

I’ve now had this phone well over a month.


As my recent post about the pains of upgrading an Android phone made clear, I’ve recently bought a new phone. The Google Pixel 2.

When Google first started making* their own hardware, they concentrated on both providing a pure Android experience at an affordable price. I have previously owned a Nexus 5 and no fewer than three Nexus 7s. But the Nexus line has sadly long gone, and Google these days is about producing premium devices to show off what they can do.

So what about the Pixel 2?

Well let’s get the first issue out of the way. There is no headphone socket. That’s still a particularly user-hostile thing to do. I use my phone nearly all the time with a pair of headphones. And while I’ve used a variety of wireless headphones over time, they all need regular recharging and invariably you find yourself losing audio when you’re out and about. I actually tend to carry a spare pair of wired headphones just in case. In any event, I’m still enjoying the HTC Hi-Res Earphones that came with my previous HTC 10.

It’s true that the Pixel 2 ships with a headphone dongle, that has a nice snug fit to plug existing headphones into. But this only seems to come in white. I chose a black Pixel 2, and use black headphones. The dongle is white. Which means that after a few weeks sitting in coat, jacket and trouser pockets, it becomes more of a pale grey. I’ve already had to clean mine with an alcohol wipe a couple of times.

The dongle is also quite large. There’s a sizeable bump emerging from the USB-C socket that it plugs into, and it necessarily needs a solid female 3.5mm jack adapter. Combined, these mean that you have unruly lumps and bumps coming out of the phone which can get caught on things when you slide the device into your pocket. Some wired headphones come with 90 degree connectors to allow them to plug in flush to the phone. That’s going to make no difference here. Indeed those headphones are likely to make things worse creating an awkward L-shaped thing to place in your pocket.

The audio quality is excellent, although I don’t think it’s quite as good as my HTC 10 was. Google has dropped the price of these USB-C/Headphone jack dongles from £20 at launch to £9 now (matching Apple’s price for its equivalent Lightning/Headphone Jack dongle), and I’ve already bought a couple of spares because I know these will need them. One of these has already found its way into my cable-case.**

The Bluetooth functionality itself looks good, being Bluetooth 5.0+ LE, although I’ve not fully explored the Bluetooth range. My Beyerdynamic Byron BT headphones seem to work reasonably well, although they do sometimes connect slowly (as they also did with my HTC 10). On the other hand, my Sony MDR-1ABT headphones connect flawlessly, and because both phone and headphones support LDAC, they sound great.

I’ve also recently started using a pair of wireless Zolo Liberty+ Bluetooth headphones. They similarly connect flawlessly, and since both the phone and the headphones use BT 5.0, the connection is stronger than previous small Bluetooth headphones I’ve tried.

Interestingly, I am running into some issues with my Roberts ECO4BT DAB radio that acts as my kitchen radio at home. This is a nice sounding workhorse radio with Bluetooth connectivity, that I never had any problem with connecting to with my previous phone. I still haven’t bottomed out the issue in this instance, since re-pairing the phone will work once. I wonder if the phone is trying to pass audio in a codec that the radio won’t accept as it gets trapped in a reboot/reconnect sequence. I had no other Bluetooth issues, pairing the phone with various headphones and Garmin devices, a Google Home Mini and an Amazon Echo. It also works nicely with my long-in-the-tooth Sony Smartwatch 3.

I really bought this phone because it has the best camera on any smartphone, and I can completely believe that. With 12.2 MP rear camera (the front camera is mostly irrelevant to me), with an F1.8 lens, and capable of shooting 4K video at 30 fps, or slowing down motion to 240 fps (in 720p), this camera ticks many boxes. It uses a combination of optical and electronic image stabilisation, all of which leads to very good imagery coming out of the phone.

The default camera app seems straightforward, without much in the way of bells and whistles. There’s a portrait mode which does all sorts of algorithmic fakery to create bokeh (aka blurriness beyond the subject) that a wide open lens on a camera with a larger sensor would do naturally. The overall thinness of phones, alongside the size of the image sensors and, well, physics, mean that you have to cheat if you want to replicate the effects that larger cameras can create. But the F1.8 lens does mean that it works well in low light.

As important for me is the ability to shoot RAW photos. The default app doesn’t do that, but third party apps do allow it – Lightroom CC Mobile in my case.

There’s also an astonishing smartburst mode that shoots around 10 frames a second continuously. All those shots become available, but software will try to identify the best based on things like people smiling and having their eyes open. I think I only noticed a tiny delay in buffering when I reached 124 shots! And that was only fractional. Fantastic for catching fast moving action.

One small thing I noticed was that if you shoot a short burst of photos, then you can turn them into an animated GIF or video fairly easily. But if you shoot a long series of photos, the app decides that you can’t turn that into a longer GIF or video which is a bit annoying.

However, each regular photo you shoot also comes as a Motion Photo if desired, and you can turn that into a short video as well.

Let it snow…

A post shared by Adam Bowie (@adambowie) on

The camera also has a super slowmo mode allowing you to take high speed footage at either 120fps (1080p resolution) or 240fps (720p resolution).

(NB. The above example was shot in very poor lighting conditions, so does not show off the imagery to the best extent.)

The Augmented Reality (AR) Stickers are silly but, kind of fun too.


“These are not the commuters you’re looking for…”

The phone runs very smoothly with a healthy 4GB of RAM paired with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 processor. The OLED screen is beautiful, and the resolution means that someone with as many apps as I like to have, can get them into folders across a couple of screens, along with a few choice widgets (mainly weather related). With my HTC 10, the bigger font size meant a limited number of folders could be displayed at any given time, which I found frustrating, as it meant pages and pages of apps. But in fact, the default Android app drawer makes access pretty fast. And apps seem to install very fast indeed.

The full Android Assistant is built into the Pixel 2, and it can be launched in a number of ways. Voice is probably the easiest, or long holding on the home button – which isn’t actually a button. But you can also squeeze the phone in the lower part of it, and it’ll launch. Entertainingly, when I asked the assistant in the Google Store concession in Curry’s PC World on Warren Street (essentially Google’s flagship store in London), they struggled to get it to work. But it does seem to work fine. Whether it’s actually useful is a moot point. In any case, you can set the Google Assistant to launch from any screen including the lock screen. It can also be summoned by a double press of a standard wired headset’s multi-function button.

The fingerprint reader is excellent, and positioned on the back, is much better placed than phones that place them on the home button. It just makes one-handed unlocking very easy indeed. It must have taken me less than 10 seconds to register each finger that I wanted to register. It’s worth going into Settings > System > Languages, input & gestures to turn on Swipe fingerprint for notifications. It’s a quick way to get access to your notifications drawer, and I wouldn’t have found out about it had someone else not pointed it out. It makes it astonishingly handy for one handed use.

It’s also worth noting that double tapping the power button can be set to launch the camera. And if you have multiple camera apps, you can choose which launches.

When I first got the phone, one curious thing I came across was the way the phone seemed to handle WiFi networks that require some further signing in before you have full internet access. I think we’ve all had issues where we’ve taught our phones to use something like BT Openzone or The Cloud, with our phones latching onto the network, only to lose all connectivity until we sign in. It can be very annoying if the phone doesn’t seamlessly login in the background. The default behaviour on my Pixel 2 seems to be to continue to utilise 4G if the WiFi network isn’t offering internet connectivity. This is fine in theory, but can lead to problems when you’re signing into a some networks. My work WiFi network is especially secure, needing both a specific app and a security certificate to access. I found myself turning off mobile data to force the phone to behave properly when signing into such a system. Even opening up the Developer Settings where there’s a switch that should change this behaviour didn’t really work. However, during the course of owning the phone, Google has send out Android 8.1.0, and that seems to have sorted out some of the errant WiFi behaviour.

One thing I hadn’t clocked ahead of time, despite reading reviews, is that the screen is always on, in that it permanently displays that time and date, and depending on your settings, will briefly display notifications. I know other phones do this, but I’ve not had one before. I actually find this very useful. We are just talking about white lettering on a black background that looks otherwise as if the phone is turned off. And importantly, the display does not seem to impact on battery life.

Call quality is good, and it’s nice to discover that the phone alerts you to numbers that it believes are suspected of spam calls (“Were you in an accident…?” “Have you claimed your PPI…”). It’s unclear to me whether this is a Pixel 2 specific thing, or an Android O thing.

I bought the 128 GB model because, sadly, there is no Micro SD card slot on this – or any other Google phone. While I’m only really at about 50% full as I type this, once I’d installed all my apps, downloaded some music for offline listening, and got a full range of podcasts sitting on the device, I know that it’ll fill quickly. Podcasts are my “problem”, since as I’ve written before, I subscribe to more than I can listen to, and I don’t have them automatically delete.

So far, battery life has been exceptional, but since I’m only a few weeks in, that is fairly meaningless. The question will be how close to zero the phone is getting in terms of charge in 18 months’ time. Android O does seem to be quite aggressive in killing background apps that are eating power. And once you drop below the default 15% battery level, you can enable battery saving which places red bars at the top and bottom of the screen to alert you to your reduced power status.

The included 18W charger is very fast recharging the phone, although there’s no wireless charging (something that only seemed to be a “thing” when iPhones started offering it. Nobody seemed very interested when my old Sony Xperia had it).

There have been a few smaller issues along the way. The phone has, at times, randomly rebooted itself. This seems to be a known issue. But it has happened a handful of times that I’ve noticed. Google promised a fix. and at time of writing, I can’t say definitively whether the update to 8.1.0 has fixed it, but I’ve not noticed any more reboots.

And I did have an issue with audio via USB-C on one single occasion when my headphones just weren’t registered by the phone and the sound came out of the phone’s speaker instead. I had to reboot to quickly sort it out (fortunately, reboots are really fast).

I do question how strong USB-C sockets are in the longer term for those who listen to a lot of audio. Say what you like about the 3.5mm jack, but it was a solid and robust fit. Once inserted, the jack had little opportunity for movement, whereas the rectangular shape of USB-C sockets feels like it’ll be less stable in the longer term. Time will tell.

Android 8.0 seems to have added lots of little bits and pieces here and there. WiFi can be set to turn on automatically when you’re in a particular area. This is useful when you’ve turned off WiFi for some reason and forget to turn it back on. You can also turn on “Now Playing” which lets the phone silently identify music playing in the background at any time. It’s like Shazam without actually having to open the Shazam app. The song details come up on the lockscreen (Obviously, there are potentially privacy issues with having your microphone “live” pretty much all the time). Many of these features will be available to any phone if and when they get Android 8.0. That in itself is an issue with Android of course, with phone manufacturers and network operators being responsible for pushing out updates. My phone is unlocked and not tied to a contract to avoid these things.

Overall, I’m very satisfied with my purchase. The camera alone makes it worthwhile. The phone isn’t a giant compared to today’s monsters. But that means I can use it one handed, and it will fit in my pocket comfortably. It actually feels very slightly smaller than my previous HTC 10. However, there is no getting away from the fact that losing the headphone socket is a terrible thing.

* They don’t really make phones of course. They outsource them to third parties. In this instance, the Pixel 2 is made by HTC, while the Pixel 2 XL comes from LG. Google recently announced that they were effectively “buying” part of HTC’s smartphone team, so perhaps future devices will all be manufactured by HTC.

** I must write about this at some point.

Changing Android Phones

I’ve never been much of a fan of Apple’s iPhones. They’ve always seemed overpriced, and far too tied down. You can only do what Apple allows you to do with them. Furthermore, the ecosystem is incredibly limited. Everyone has to use one of a very small handful of models, none of which are especially cheap (even the “budget” iPhone SE). And of course, you’re using precisely the same hardware as everyone else. Choice of protective case is not the high point of individuality!

But one thing this has all allowed Apple to do is offer a seamless backup and upgrade programme. If you lose or damage an iPhone, it’s relatively trivial to restore the phone in its entirety once you have your hands on a replacement device. Similarly, when it comes to upgrading to a newer model, it’s a painless affair, assuming you’ve made use of the iCloud.

The same just is not true for Android. While I enjoy getting a new phone as much as anyone, I really don’t look forward to the hours of work it will take to move across. Certainly the simple act of signing in to the device is trivial, actually getting the phone back to something similar to what you had before is incredibly time-consuming and tedious.

I’ve just upgraded to a new phone, in large part because I unfortunately damaged my previous one. Not enough to stop it working, but enough to mean an expensive repair. I opted for a replacement.

Google has started providing a USB adaptor with its Pixel phones to aid the set-up. The idea is that you connect a cable between your old phone and new one, and lots of your settings, messages and music are transferred across.

But this is really only a very basic transfer, and there’s much more that you have to do.

Now I appreciate that I use my phone for lots of services, and have more than 150 apps in total running on it. But it’s just such a painful experience even once you’ve backed up what the cable allows.

Here are just a few of the problems:

  • Passwords – Apps just don’t remember them. You have to re-sign into nearly everything. Now Google does have a Smartlock service, and some apps work really well with it. Netflix and Uber worked seamlessly. But the vast majority of apps needed me to sign in again, in the worst instances, having to set up the various options as I’d had them before. Sure, that’s the app developer’s fault for not using Google’s service. Yet, it still feels needless.
  • Signing in repeatedly – Even more annoying are the multiple apps that share the same user identity, yet require you to sign in separately. For example, I have a number of apps that use Amazon’s login (e.g. Kindle, Amazon Prime Video, etc). I repeatedly have to sign into each app. Again, that’s probably the app developers’ fault, but from the user’s perspective, it’s needless.
  • Run every app – All of this means that to ensure everything is working, you have to run every single app.
  • Apps that don’t work – Again, not really Google’s fault, but apps that don’t run in Android Oreo, just don’t get installed. It means that apps drop off in the transfer. It would be useful to have a list of apps that have not been installed because they’re not yet compatible.
  • Layout not transferred – Since I have a large number of apps, I try my best to corral them into sensible folders. I spend ages doing this, and of course, when you set up your new phone, this is all completely lost. I understand that the layout of my new phone may be different and therefore screen real estate can’t be precisely replicated. But it’d still be nice to keep the groupings between phones. In the past, when I’ve had a phone repaired (and of course, reset afterwards), I’ve ended up taking screen shots of the way it was organised so that I can mirror my set-up later.
  • Widgets are lost – Ditto, none of the widgets I’ve placed previously are carried across. I have to rebuild them.
  • BlueTooth settings – While WiFi settings do tend to be carried across, you have to repair all your BlueTooth hardware. I realise that this is perhaps due to how the technology works, with unique codes attached to each device.
  • Re-download media – While I understand why I have to re-download all my podcasts, because Google doesn’t have a default podcast app, so developers all do their own thing, that’s not true of music. Google has its own Music app, and it allows you to download tracks for offline listening. None of this is remembered, so you have to go through and re-download all your music, rather than it automatically restore itself.

That’s just what I can remember off the top of my head, and isn’t necessarily comprehensive.

I would say that, conservatively, it took me 5-6 hours to get my new phone up and running to my satisfaction. And that doesn’t include one false start where I didn’t realise that if I didn’t do the transfer from the old phone during initial set-up, it would never work. A factory reset was required, and I started from scratch a second time.

Undoubtedly Google is getting better at this. Every major Android release sees some improvements. And of course the diversity of the Android ecosystem means that it’s harder for Android than for iOS to do this kind of thing. But many of us are locked in a phone replacement cycle of between 18 and 36 months, meaning we all have to do this on occasion, it’s vital that this process is made easier.

If People Think It – Does It Matter If It’s Actually True?

In this week’s excellent episode of the Reply All podcast, Alex Goldman and PG Vogt explore the question Is Facebook Spying On You?

In particular, a number of people are of the belief that the Facebook app is listening to what you’re saying and that’s the only way to explain why things you were talking about with your friends are suddenly appearing as ads in your Facebook timeline.

Now in fact there are lots of reasons why Facebook could know this information, and the episode digs into the issue of online ad tracking, which is remarkably sophisticated these days – and/or creepy. Facebook tracks your internet behaviours across many sites who use the Facebook Pixel. Essentially it’s tracking code that follows you around vast parts of the web. It’s this technology that also explains why that pair of shoes you were looking at during your lunch break then follows you elsewhere around the web.

Facebook records thousands of pieces of data about each user, and then further utilises location data from the app and location data of your friends’ apps. In turn this means that you might see products that your friends were looking at because it can infer that you might have mentioned them. (Interestingly, just after listening to this episode the Facebook app on my phone performed quite a sizeable update that required me to log in again. The first thing it asked for was permission to turn on location services. Denied!)

This remarkable technology, along with smart algorithms that will make inferences based on people’s behaviours means that as Facebook says, it isn’t actually using the microphone on your phone to listen to you.

But the tracking they manage seems to be practically magical to many people, so they infer that Facebook must be listening in!

So my question is this: Does it actually matter that Facebook isn’t using the microphone on your phone. If their tracking is so exceptional and accurate, that it becomes creepy, people will rationalise it as meaning they must be doing it.

And if people believe something to be true, it really doesn’t matter if it’s not actually the case.

Note: I write all this in the knowledge that I have microphones in my home that do stay live all the time, and report data back to Amazon and Google. The difference is that I trust those organisations more. It’s difficult to put my finger on why that is, but it feels that they’re more up front and honest about what they’re doing.

Encryption – A Failure to Understand

Today in the Telegraph, Amber Rudd, the UK Home Secretary has written an opinion piece (subscription) trying once more to explain the Government’s views on encryption.

Broadly speaking, they’re very upset that it’s really hard to break into terrorist and ne’er do well’s encrypted messages over services such as WhatsApp. It would be much easier if such services didn’t employ strong end-to-end encryption.

While the message does seem to be slightly getting through that encryption actual has a lot of commercial uses, there does seem to be a real failure to understand that it’s actually really useful for everybody – including “real people.”

I’ve annotated some of the column:

Encryption plays a fundamental role in protecting us all online. It is key to growing the digital economy, and delivering public services online. But, like many powerful technologies, encrypted services are used and abused by a small minority of people.

Yes. This is all true.

The particular challenge is around so called “end-to-end” encryption, where even the service provider cannot see the content of a communication.

That’s kind of the point about encryption. If my messages are sitting unencrypted on some kind of central server at WhatsApp or wherever, then they’re vulnerable. We’ve seen a non-stop series of hacks and data leaks of all kinds from everywhere. Unencrypted data is essentially a vulnerability waiting to happen.

To be very clear – Government supports strong encryption and has no intention of banning end-to-end encryption.

Good.

But the inability to gain access to encrypted data in specific and targeted instances – even with a warrant signed by a Secretary of State and a senior judge – is right now severely limiting our agencies’ ability to stop terrorist attacks and bring criminals to justice.

Undoubtedly this is a significant challenge. But either you allow end-to-end encryption or you don’t. And if you don’t, the consequences are vast.

I know some will argue that it’s impossible to have both – that if a system is end-to-end encrypted then it’s impossible ever to access the communication.

That’s right. It’s impossible – at least without access to the devices at either end where the messages are unencryted.

But you either have end-to-end encryption. Or you don’t. The choice is binary.

That might be true in theory.

Not just theory.

Practice.

It’s mathematics.

In this kind of area, there aren’t shades of grey. It works or it doesn’t work.

But the reality is different.

No it’s not.

Real people often prefer ease of use and a multitude of features to perfect, unbreakable security.

Where to begin?

This is a false dichotomy for starters. WhatsApp offers all the features alongside end-to-end encryption. A priori, you can have both.

And who are “Real people?” Are they business colleagues dealing in commercially sensitive data or intellectual property? Or friends and family sharing banking details? People sending naked selfies to each other? People having affairs or relationships they’d like to keep private? People seeking support for sensitive medical issues? Conservative MPs plotting in WhatsApp groups who will be the next PM?

“Real people” actually like a bit of privacy it would seem. There are countless good reasons for this. And encryption allows this.

So this is not about asking the companies to break encryption or create so called “back doors”.

OK – good. Because that would be horrifically dangerous.

Who uses WhatsApp because it is end-to-end encrypted, rather than because it is an incredibly 
user-friendly and cheap way of staying in touch with friends and family?

Um. Quite a lot of people. Encryption makes our lives safer. WhatsApp has managed to be both incredibly user-friendly and provide end-to-end encryption.

Are you asking WhatsApp to remove that encryption then? Because it’s really not clear from any of this what you expect them and others to actually be doing.

Companies are constantly making trade-offs between security and “usability”, and it is here where our experts believe opportunities may lie.

Except in this instance there is no trade-off. It turns out that we can have both! So I’ll take both thanks.

So, there are options. But they rely on mature conversations between the tech companies and Government 
– and they must be confidential. The key point is that this is not about compromising wider security.

Er. Yes it is. You want encryption switched off. That compromises my own security, and that of millions of other users.

It is about working together so we can find a way for our intelligence services, in very specific circumstances, to get more information on what serious criminals and terrorists are doing online.

Let’s think this through. If Facebook switches off encryption in WhatsApp, then do you think it’s at all possible that terrorists et al might migrate somewhere else? And you do understand that encryption isn’t something you can stuff back in the bottle. It’s out in the wild. There are dozens, if not hundreds of messaging services. Many businesses can’t, or won’t, work without full encryption, so you can’t ban the tools. They’re used throughout the world.

I thought previously that it was technical naivety that has led a succession of Home Secretaries to spout nonsense about encryption. But I’m beginning to think that it’s almost purposeful.

The Telegraph piece does not make any sense. And it really doesn’t spell out what the Home Secretary would actually like these companies to do.

I suspect it’s to turn off encryption. But that would just leave the vast majority of users globally far less secure while any terrorist with a semblance of intelligence would move to another platform that does offer encryption.

We’re lucky enough to live in a democracy in the UK. Many people don’t. Encryption has proved vital to millions of people throughout the world. But it’s not just dangerous regimes, but personal data that people would just prefer not to share with anyone apart from their intended targets.

At this point, a failure to not understand this must be construed as willful.

Anker SoundBuds Sport IE20

Anker SoundBuds Sport IE20 Macro

As a rule of thumb, the headphones you got with your latest audio device are probably rubbish. I.e the headphones that came with your phone.

Every phone I’ve bought has come with some kind of included headphones (or more accurately “headset” since there’s a microphone on them), and in nearly every case, they have been rubbish.

When I say “rubbish,” I don’t mean they don’t work – they obviously do. But they deliver at best very average audio, and in many cases really poor audio. I include Apple in this list.

While over the ear headphones invariably sound better than any other type, the fact is that in-ear headphones are usually more practical and convenient, so I’m regularly seeking out affordable in-ear headphones to listen with.

Before I get onto my most recent headphones, I’ll say a little about others I’ve used regularly in the last few years. I should point out that I tend to use and abuse headphones. They usually follow me everywhere, and cables get caught and pulled, and supplied cases are rarely used.

Sennheiser CX 300 II – I’ve owned lots of pairs of these, because they sound excellent and are very reasonably priced. However, the reason I’ve had lots of pairs is that I found that the build quality wasn’t great and I got through a new pair every 6-9 months. Also, these are headphones only, so there’s no microphone for taking calls.

Sennheiser CX 5.0 G – I’ve recently started using these again after a period of disuse. The quality is excellent, and unlike the CX 300 IIs, there’s a microphone and three buttons for controlling your phone. I have the Android version, the G standing for Samsung Galaxy, but found they work well with my HTC 10. I did have problems with my previous Sony Xperia Z3, with only volume up really working. The reason I hadn’t been using them that much was that none of the included rubber ear bud cases were quite right for me. I solved this by purchasing some Comply foam replacements. These have to be ordered from Comply in the US direct, because while most of Comply’s range is widely available the Sennheiser fitting is not available internationally. But once fitted, the headphones are excellent.

SoundMAGIC E10 – Another headphone I’ve owned several pairs of. These come with a plentiful selection of rubber caps to choose from, and I found them excellent. I still managed to break a few sets over the years, and again, these are headphones only. Recently SoundMAGIC has announced the E10BT which are Bluetooth wireless set of phones. Certainly worth considering, if more pricey.

HTC Hi-Res – When I said earlier that all headphones that come with your phone are decidedly average at best, I wasn’t being entirely accurate. The earphones that HTC supplies with its HTC 10 are superb. They fit well, and have excellent sound reproduction with great volume. The only issues I have are that there is only a single button in line, and replacements are really hard to come by. When one ear stopped working on mine, I hunted high and low to find replacements. On eBay I only found a pair in white (I never wear white headphones), and in the end, it was HTC’s service department that supplied me with a replacement pair. But these really are excellent.

I mention all of this so you know where I’m coming from with headphones. Affordable quality rather than over-priced branding. This piece is supposed to be a review the Anker Soundbuds Sport IE20 however.

Anker SoundBuds Sport IE20 Macro - with Remote

Now I’m not going to pretend these are the best headphones on this list. I think I probably still prefer the HTC Hi-Res or Sennheiser CX 5.00 in terms of sound quality. But these do sound pretty good. And then there’s the not-inconsiderable question of their price. While most of the others have been £30+, these come in at £24 at time of writing. Did I mention that they’re wireless Bluetooth?

They come well packaged with a frankly unparalleled array of rubber pieces to make the earphones fit your ear. I find fit the single biggest problem with any headphones. If I can’t keep them in my ears, then it doesn’t matter what anyone else says – they’re useless for me. A case in point would be Apple’s standard earbuds. They simply don’t fit my ears, and I can’t keep them in. As a consequence, Apple’s recently launched and ridiculous looking Earpods won’t fit me either. One size fits all? One size fits none more like.

I found that the Ankers fitted my ears “as is” – that it, with the standard rubber caps, but in fact with the entire headphone swallowed by my ears. Once in, they rarely come loose, staying in as I walk or cycle around. The earphones come with a wire that loops around the back of your head and includes a small strap fastener to minimise “hang.” Personally I like the ability to hang the headphones around my neck – it keeps them convenient, but out of my ears for talking to people, listening to announcements or whatever. And of course, should one dislodge itself, then it doesn’t fall straight to the floor.

There is a three button remote controlling volume up/down and start/stop – all of this working via Bluetooth. Pairing the earphones was straightforward, and the controls work well on my Android phone.

The right hand side has a small rubber cap covering a micro-USB charging point. Anker claim that a 1.5 hour charge will give 8 hours playback and that feels about right in my experience. The phones also have a very clever magnetic on/off facility. When you connect the backs of the left and right sides together, they clasp via a magnet and power-off Bluetooth. Obviously that’s essential because there’s nothing worse that your phone ringing on your desk, but forgetting that your headphones are still connected when you try to answer!

A small blue and orange LED lets you know when the earphones are connected, when they’re charging and when they’re powering down, and a small pouch is supplied if you want to carry them around with you.

Overall then, a really impressive package at a very reasonable price.

There are a couple of issues though.

The magnetic clasp works well when it works, but they can come unattached in a pocket and then connect to your phone, slowly flattening the battery at the same time (they should disconnect through non-use though). And the headphones are so discreet, you may forget that they’re there. I accidentally attended a meeting with them around my neck without even noticing.

The biggest problem you will have is the same that you have with any wireless headphones – the battery. Eight hours’ power is enough time that you don’t need to charge them every day (assuming you’re mostly using them for commuting or exercising). But it’s not enough that you don’t need to think about battery power at all. You are going to get caught out without power, and unfortunately, like other wireless headphones I’ve tried, the power tales off very quickly towards the end. The only way you can check power is an audible warning noise when you’re approaching the end. Sadly, that probably means a maximum of 15 minutes before the headphones die.

While the headphones don’t come with a fancy charging case a la Apple Earpods, you can charge them with a standard USB charger. I tend to keep a lipstick-sized Anker power bank in my bag all the time. The issue is that on a practical level, you have to stop listening to recharge. So while you might only require a 15 minute boost to get your through the rest of your journey, that’s 15 minutes without audio. For me, that means keeping a spare set of wired headphones in the bottom of my bag for such emergencies. While micro USB might be a bit fiddly, it does at least mean that you have multiple ways to charge the headphones.

If you love a throbbing baseline, then these aren’t for you. The only other issue I’ve had is down to the strength of the Bluetooth signal. I find that you can’t wander too far from the phone for uninterrupted sound, and occasionally there are signal issues in some areas. I usually keep my phone in left breast or hip pockets, and rarely have problems with the distance to the headphones. However there are certainly more powerful BT units out there – Sony MDR-1ABT over the ear headphones for example.

However, overall, and notwithstanding some limited shortcomings, I can thoroughly recommend these headphones for the quality, sound and convenience. It is liberating losing a wire connected to your phone, although that does mean owning something else to keep charged.

Anker SoundBuds Sport IE20 Macro - right hand side

TechCon 2016 – The Return

One of the casualties of the changes surrounding the Radio Academy was that TechCon, the one day conference about radio and audio technology, fell by the wayside.

Fortunately, it was gamely picked up by Ann Charles, Aradhna Tayal and Andy Buckingham, who took the conference independent.

Running a conference is not for the faint-hearted, with real costs incurred for things like the venue hire, kit, catering and dull things like insurance. These are largely upfront costs before you’ve sold any tickets. And of course the more specialist a conference is, the more limited your potential audience might be. In a media landscape that has seen a reduction in the number of sizeable radio players, that can mean that it’s challenging to sell tickets.

I spoke to a colleague recently who attended another specialist conference, and they noted that almost the entire audience was made up of speakers and panelists.

So congratulations to the team for filling the room with more than 150 people, and thanks too to the sponsors of the event – notably Broadcast Bionics, Arqiva, KTN, RCS and the IET.

By its very nature, TechCon can get technical – and so it did. But never so much that an interested layperson couldn’t understand what was being talked about. While I won’t list every session from the day, in no particular order, here are some of the great takeaways I came away with:

  • The science of acoustics and machine learning is utterly fascinating. This is the sort of work that allows Amazon Alexa, OK Google or Siri to work as well as they do. Cleopatra Pike and Amy Beeston from the Universities of St Andrews and Sheffield, talked about the science and some of the challenges of this kind of automation, and about how machine learning is driving a lot of this. And if we move to object based radio, as Dave Walters talked about, there’s the possibility of this becoming a little easier.
  • There is no definitive conclusion on the future of radio according to research conducted by Nicky Birch of Rosina Sounds for the British Library. The report interviewed a lot of people, and while change is clearly afoot, nobody really knows what that’ll mean who how fast it will happen.
  • Some van drivers have illegal gizmos that they plug into their vehicles to block GPS. This is primarily to prevent their employers being able to track them with built-in GPS trackers. But Simon Mason of Arqiva pointed out that this one of many problems they face when trying to keep transmitters like the national DAB network in sync with one another. More generally he talked about satellite navigation solutions – a timely talk since the European Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS), Galileo, is due to begin operations by the end of this year. That brings three systems to European users, sitting alongside the American GPS and Russian GLONASS systems.
  • We heard lots about the development of in-car audio. One interesting perspective is how the likes of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are received by different car manufacturers. Because they essentially offer a single solution to every vehicle, a luxury car manufacturer is no longer able to differentiate themselves from a budget car manufacturer. Everybody gets the same experience. We also saw a potentially scary video of self-driving cars handling a junction autonomously (similar to this video). It’s going to take a little getting used to.
  • Nigel Fry of the BBC World Service, told us how hard it is to broadcast to countries where governments might prefer you not to broadcast.
  • It’s possible to broadcast a radio station making use only of the sun. Even in London! Issa Kassimu of Internews, who is powering such a station in South Sudan, ran us through some calculations. The key point is that you do have to factor in the wattage of your kettle. Everyone wants a cuppa after all!
  • Ofcom is looking forward to licencing more small-scale DAB licences – although it may be a few months before they start to invite applications.
  • To broadcast the (re) launch of Virgin Radio from a moving train, Phil Critchlow of TBI and colleagues from Vipranet used twelve different 3G and 4G connections from four network operators. That still doesn’t help for some cuttings and tunnels, and probably isn’t enough for you to stream Netflix either!
  • Everyone loves binaural. I know you know I know this, but Chris Pike of BBC R&D was able to demo this live with wireless headphones. He played some audio from one of the two binaural productions broadcast a year or so ago (you may recall I went to an event for one of these). We also got to hear some of the audio from the BBC’s VR “Taster” experiment, The Turning Forest, viewable in Google Daydream, Google’s VR application.

And that’s without me mentioning Software Defined Radio, making and broadcasting radio using only cheap phones, and building new studios in tight confines when you have a hatful of new national speech services to launch!

To anyone who attended and couldn’t ask a question because there was just so much to get through – apologies. That was probably my fault as I was doing my best to keep everything running to schedule. One of the downsides of running a conference in a theatre is that, at the end of the day, a production wants the theatre back to put on a show. So we had a very tight turnaround. (That’s also why I wasn’t live Tweeting as I ordinarily would)

I’m sure that the conference will be back next year, so head over to the TechCon website and add yourself to the list!

David Lloyd has a nice writeup of the day, Arqiva has also written about the event, and Trevor Dann features the conference in this week’s RadioToday Podcast.

See you there next year!