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Tagged: mobile

Ontario Premier Says Cellphones Could Be Useful In The Classroom

This post originally appeared on Techdirt.

With schools, cell phones and a politician in the same headline, you’d think the story would be about another attempt to ban technology, but in Ontario, Premier Dalton McGuinty is telling schools to be open to uses for cellphones in the classroom.

McGuinty, who won’t even let his ministers keep the devices during cabinet meetings, said he understands they can be a major distraction, but there is a “right way” to use them in class.

“Telephones and BlackBerrys and the like are conduits for information today, and one of the things we want to do is to be well-informed,” he said. “And it’s something that we should be looking at in our schools.

The issue came up in light of the Toronto District School Board rethinking its blanket ban, and “exploring ways to make [mobile devices] more acceptable.”

Political opponents are already mocking McGuinty, and his government does have a really mixed track record on technology… but the comments here are actually quite reasonable. There’s room between the “discipline theater” approach of a total ban and the teacher’s nightmare scenario of a total free-for-all. A good acceptable use policy would attempt to reduce distractions while not precluding ways in which mobile technology can be helpful in the classroom.

I attended a strict private high school in Toronto from 2001-2005, and we had a blanket ban on electronic devices… but teachers were smart enough to know when it made sense to ignore the ban. I used my PDA to take notes and manage homework in every class, and another student in my year often used a tablet computer. The ban was eventually lifted after I graduated, acknowledging the fact that more and more students were using laptops and mobile devices in ways that helped them learn, while I’m sure they still have a no nonsense policy for students goofing off or distracting others. Rules are needed to minimize bad uses, but that shouldn’t prevent people from exploring good uses.

So, good for McGuinty for recognizing that we’re better off exploring applications for mobile technology in the classroom than simply trying to ban it.

Read the comments on Techdirt.

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WIND Mobile Launches Reasonable Data Plans In Canada

WIND Mobile’s pricing plans brought a breath of fresh air to the Canadian wireless landscape last December, but customers have been asking for less expensive data. WIND offered a great $35/month unlimited data add-on, but nothing below that for general purpose data.

Well, today, WIND announced new data add-ons. Just like their voice plans (and unlike what I was used to with Rogers), WIND’s data add-ons are brilliantly simple and easy to understand.

Here’s my take:

Add-On Social Charged Infinite
Cost $10/month (+ overage)
$20/month (+ overage)
$35/month. Period.
Data Included 50 MB/month
500 MB/month
Overage rate 20¢/MB
$10 / 50 MB
$20 / 500 MB
n / a
Monthly break-even 100 MB
x 20¢/MB = $20
875 MB
x 4¢/MB = $35
n / a
My Thoughts Makes sense if you only use mobile data occasionally, or for mostly text.

e.g. My mom, who uses mobile data mostly for email, and occasionally to browse the web

Makes sense if you browse the web regularly, and stream/download audio or video sometimes.

e.g. My fiancée, an average web user (email, social networking sites, chat, photos, maps, the occasional audio/video stream)

Makes sense if you stream/download audio or video a lot, or if you want to tether your mobile device with your laptop.

e.g. A geek like me, especially if I’m tethering, though I might even consider downgrading to Charged.

The monthly break-even point is not necessarily the long-term break-even point. Even if you go over the monthly break-even point occasionally, a smaller plan might be less expensive on average over time.

Pay Before to cap spending. If you’re concerned about overage charges, you can go Pay Before and only put in as much money as you’re willing to spend each month. Unlike other carriers, WIND offers Pay Before customers access to the same plans and add-ons.

Although these rates only apply in Home Zones, WIND is expanding it’s Home Zones daily, with the ambition of building a national 3G network. Right now, the Home Zones are Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver, Ottawa and Edmonton.

No More Getting Ripped Off

Coming from a family that’s been ripped off by Rogers for way too long, this is a breath of fresh air. Working through a Rogers bill involves a labyrinth of plans (fixed versus flex rate, Pay-As-You-Go versus regular wireless), vague details, ridiculous contracts, outrageous early cancellation fees, and sales reps who don’t understand half of it. The game is to do a detailed analysis of your usage and their offerings (including the fine print and hidden costs), and try to match them up as best you can. Otherwise, Rogers will happily take as much of your money as it can. Bell and Telus are hardly different.

I’m thankful for a wireless company that is trying to earn money by making things easy to understand, rather than profiting from confusion.

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How is a three strikes proposal supposed to work for mobile data?

Honestly, I still have trouble convincing myself that the push by the record industry to implement a three-strikes-and-you’re-out (that is, three-accusations-and-you’re-kicked-offline-for-a-year) system is actually happening, that grown men and women running companies claim—with a straight face—that this will save failing business models. It’s just so ridiculous. But the IFPI’s recent claims that it can surgically remove one person from the Internet without affecting the rest of a household have got me thinking about mobile data. Cellular providers are becoming Internet Service Providers. Would three accusations of unauthorized file sharing cut you off from mobile data too? What’s to stop someone from getting a 3G USB stick to connect to the Internet? Either the record industry is that much more ridiculous and they’re also taking on mobile carriers, or there’s another giant loophole in an already insane plan.

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It’s Not A Phone, It’s A Mobile Computer

Nokia N900
Credit: mackarus [CC BY]

People keep asking me about my new “cell phone,” but the Nokia N900 isn’t a phone. It’s a handheld, mobile computer. Calling it a phone is like calling a house a bed—sleeping is just one thing you do inside a house.

I became interested in the Nokia N900 in the fall, and after a several good reviews, I ordered one off eBay earlier this month. The N900 is the first from a series of Nokia Internet tablets to have cellular capabilities, but the SIM card doesn’t overshadow all the other things you can do with the device—it just frees you to connect to the Internet on the go. The day after it arrived, I signed up with WIND Mobile (another contributing factor to the purchase: leaving Rogers). The combination of a powerful mobile computer, and unlimited 3G data for just $35/month has changed the way I use the Internet.

Yes, it can handle phone calls and SMS messages, but it’s totally arbitrary that a call is a cellular call as opposed to over Google Talk or SIP / VOIP, or that a message is SMS rather than IM; the same applications are used in either case. I can use it as a cell phone, but I can also use it as an Internet tablet, GPS, digital audio player, camera, etc.

Maemo, the operating system that comes installed on the N900, is a fully-featured GNU/Linux distribution. Android shares a common (ish) kernel with other Linux-based distributions, but Maemo has much more in common with the operating system running on my laptop. It uses the same system for finding and installing new software, and it has a lot of the same applications available, since it’s easier to port from other GNU/Linux distributions. Rather than forcing developers to write Java “apps,” Maemo makes a variety of common development environments available. Thus, it’s the first platform to see a Firefox mobile release.

It’s a computer, not a phone. And it’s not just semantics. When we think of mobile computers as merely “phones,” we tolerate restrictions that we would otherwise reject on our computers. How many iPhone users would come to Apple’s defence if they instituted the same strict policies and arbitrary limitations on third-party applications for a Macbook as they do on their mobile computer? (Update: I spoke literally hours too soon.) Recognizing that these devices are really mobile computers is an essential step to gaining control over our mobile computing. Carriers and handset makers control our phones. We should control our own computers.

Google has tried to replace the term “smartphone” with it’s own buzzword — “superphone” — but it’s not just the “smart” part that’s become inadequate. It doesn’t make sense to call these devices “cell phones” anymore than it would make sense to call the buildings we live in “beds.” I have a handheld computer, and my carrier is my ISP.

ps I wrote and edited this post on my N900 using MaStory

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Less Well Known Artists Make Use Of Mobile Platforms To Interact With Fans

This post originally appeared on Techdirt.

When talking about the success of musicians adopting business models around the economics we discuss here, people often complain that it “only works for big artists” or “only works for the little guys,” so much so that someone dubbed the exceptionalism as “Masnick’s Law.” I admit that it was easy to feel this way when Trent Reznor launched the Nine Inch Nails iPhone app. How many less well known artists would benefit from (or be able to develop) their own mobile app? Well, a company called Gigdoggy recently launched a mobile “Fanteraction” platform that lets bands easily create mobile websites for their gigs. In a blog post chronicling a show in which the platform was used and promoted, the first artist to play didn’t really push it, but the second artist, Greg (one of the creators), made a point of explaining it to people. Basically, by queueing up each song on the site, an artist is able to provide lyrics and additional information that the audience can access via a mobile device while enjoying the performance. It’s web-based, so it’s accessible from different platforms without the need for downloads (or the risk of getting banned by Apple). Greg was able to get some people interested and following along. One audience member even prompted him when he forgot the lyrics to a verse! The platform is in its early stages, but it’ll be interesting to see how it develops and what people do with it. At the very least, it’s a good illustration that you don’t need to be playing in stadiums to find a use for this sort of thing.

Read the comments on Techdirt

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HOWTO: Installing Android on the Freerunner + Rogers APN

I’ve been using the Openmoko Neo Freerunner as my mobile phone for over two months now. The phone can run a variety of software distributions. I started off with the Om 2008.12 Update, but spent the first few weeks testing out other popular distributions: FDOM, SHR, Qt Extended and finally Android. When I first tested Android, I had some trouble connecting to the GSM network and it felt like there were still some issues being worked out, so I went back to Om 2008.12, with the intention of dual-booting Android. The dual-boot turned out to be a bit trickier than anticipated, and I kept putting it off. Om 2008.12 is a cool idea, but there were some really annoying bugs and little hope of future development [Update: Ben left a comment about the recent flurry of development, including progress on Om2009t5], so yesterday I took the dive and went to a single-boot Android setup.

I started off on the Openmoko wiki page about installing Android on the Freerunner, but the installation is quite simple if you’re going with Koolu’s Android images (though there are a few other options). They provide a near automatic installation with the latest beta releases. Simply visit the website to download the images, and the installation process is dead simple:

Installation Instructions for Beta4 and Later

  1. Unpack the files on to a FAT formatted SD card.
  2. Insert card into the Freerunner, and boot from NOR menu (hold AUX key, then power)
  3. Chose boot from SD Card (FAT and ext2)

The automated install process should begin. It installs the Qi bootloader, reboots, the kernel, reboots, then the system image.

NOTE: This install process overwrites *everything* on the NAND in the phone, including the bootloader. If this is not what you would like to do, please either look at the install process, and modify it to suit your needs.

I’m in the process and figuring out the APN settings for Rogers to make use of my data plan. Oliver Fisher has the details for how to setup the Rogers APN on a G1, which matches the details I got from calling Rogers tech support, but I haven’t been able to connect yet. Not sure if this is a problem with my APN settings or with my data plan. I’ll update this post with the details when I figure it out.

Update: I can’t seem to get connected, though sometimes it says connecting, but I’ve found two posts about the Android settings on the T-Mobile G1 with Rogers which match what I’ve been told when calling 1-888-ROGERS1 (, wapuser1 / wap).

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The Sad State Of Mobile Competition in Canada, As Evidenced By Twitter SMS Support

You know things are pretty pathetic when an announcement from Rogers that SMS updates are re-enabled for Twitter (after 7 months of downtime), without any pricing trickery, is a cause for rejoicing. Update: I spoke too soon

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Principal Installs Cellphone Jammer But Forgets To Check If It’s Legal

This post originally appeared on Techdirt.

Many educators are having trouble figuring out how to handle electronic devices in the classroom. Some have been educating students on the negative effects, encouraging them to regulate their own use. Others have even highlighted possible applications for mobile devices in the classroom. Though, many just try to ban everything. A principal in British Columbia took his school’s ban to a new level by setting up a cellphone jammer. There was just one problem — the device is illegal in Canada. The principal had ordered the Chinese device online, but some angry students were quick to find out and inform him that he was breaking the law. So much for that idea. Now, he’s left looking pretty bad while cellphone use in school now seems like some kind of civil rights issue to some students.

It seems like this is less about the cellphone ban and more about maintaining authority in the school. On that front… this completely backfired. Plenty of schools have effective cellphone bans without resorting to technological blocks (I attended such a high school). Maybe the principal should explain to students and teachers why cellphones are a problem, set some reasonable guidelines for use and some reasonable consequences for violations of the policy. That would probably go a lot further to establish the principal’s authority and gain his students’ respect than installing an illegal device and being forced to backtrack ever could.

Read the comments on Techdirt.

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Getting Started with the Openmoko FreeRunner: Installing Om 2008.12 in Ubuntu

Heather, my girlfriend fiancée, was kind enough to buy me an OpenMoko Freerunner in January. I went out to get a new SIM card (since there were known issues with my current one) and I experimented with it for a couple weeks, but had to leave it be lately as the past couple months have been very busy.

This morning I got back into the game.

One thing I wish I’d known from the outset is that there are a bunch of different distributions available. When I went into the IRC channel for help, I got several (polite) rtfms directing me to the Getting Started guide (which I was already looking at). Except, the Getting Started guide and FAQ provided a ton of contradictory information (which I’ve since tried to correct) about which distribution ships by default, nevermind a clear explanation that there are different distributions to begin with. Even worse, the FreeRunner ships with Om 2007.2, which is old, basic and not even supported anymore. (My mom asks, “so, would you say that it’s not quite ready for the average user yet?” Considering that the first order of business is to reflash it with a new distribution…) It took me a while to figure all that out. I hope to spend some more time soon trying to improve the documentation so that new users aren’t as confused as I was in the beginning.

I’ve decided to start with Om 2008.12 Update, the latest official distribution. I may consider FAT and Dirty Openmoko (FDOM) soon, which is just Om 2008.12 “updated with many ready-to-use applications.” Qt Extended is on my radar as the just-a-working-phone distribution (but where’s the fun in that?). Though, the next major step I think will be to dual-boot with Android, as that seems like it may be the best option in the long-run (though it’s very much a work in progress now).

Installing Om 2008.12 Update in Ubuntu

Installing Om 2008.12 was actually pretty easy in Ubuntu: download the kernel and rootfs, then follow the instructions to flash the NeoFreeRunner. (I didn’t worry about a backup since I had nothing of value on there.)

I choose to use dfu-util instead of the NeoTool GUI because dfu-util is already in the Ubuntu 8.10 repositories.

sudo apt-get install dfu-util

I only encountered one problem when following the instructions. When I tried to run the dfu-util command, it detected two devices, even though I had nothing else plugged into my laptop but a power cord. The second one was named “UNDEFINED”, which wasn’t particularly helpful either.

$ sudo dfu-util --llist
dfu-util - (C) 2007 by OpenMoko Inc.
This program is Free Software and has ABSOLUTELY NO WARRANTY
Found Runtime: [0x1d50:0x5119] devnum=4, cfg=0, intf=2, alt=0, name="USB Device Firmware Upgrade"
Found Runtime: [0x0a5c:0x2110] devnum=3, cfg=0, intf=3, alt=0, name="UNDEFINED"

According to the comments on this ticket, it’s actually expected behaviour for dfu-util, and it could very well be my bluetooth interface that was showing up. Instead of disabling it, I just used the -d flag as suggested in the comments to specify which device to update. (Also, under Ubuntu, don’t forget sudo…)

sudo dfu-util -a kernel -R -d 0x1d50:0x5119 -D Om2008.12-om-gta02.uImage.bin
sudo dfu-util -a rootfs -R -d 0x1d50:0x5119 -D ./Om2008.12-om-gta02.rootfs.jffs2

… where 0x1d50:0x5119 is vendor/product ID of the FreeRunner (found via `dfu-util –list`).

The FreeRunner can boot from flash memory or a microSD card. I plan to try Om 2008.12 (or a variant) in flash and I’ll probably dual-boot with Android on the microSD card at a later date. So far, I’ve just turned it on and sent Heather a message and added her as a contact, but I hope to finally be getting some real use out of it soon!

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Canadian Telcos: The Battle of Who Could Care Less

This is getting just a little bit ridiculous. Rogers’ rates are already insanely high since they have a GSM monopoly in Canada. Their absolutely unrealistic pricing plans for the iPhone appear to have even got the attention of Cupertino. Now, despite the ongoing investigation by the CRTC into Bell’s throttling practices (which is generating enough bad publicity), Bell and Telus are in a race to the bottom in the value they offer customers through their mobile pricing plans. They want to start charging customers 15 cents per received SMS message.

Even at 10¢, a text message already costs the customer sending it almost five times more than it does to send the equivalent amount of data to the Hubble telescope. 15¢ per text message means that any time a customer sends or receives a message (which can’t be bigger than 140 bytes), they are paying the equivalent of at least $1,101 per megabyte—and, if they are, say, Bell customers sending a message to other Bell customers, Bell makes the equivalent of at least $2,202 per megabyte. And we’re, uh, guessing that some of that’s profit.

Bell unsurprisingly tries to make this somehow seem necessary.

The growth in text messages has been nothing short of phenomenal. This volume places tremendous demands on our network and we can’t afford to provide this service for free anymore.

Somehow, I find that hard to believe. This is like the postal service charging you to receive mail, despite the sender already having paid the postage. (In which case, when ordering something online you’d have to pay shipping and “receiving”.)

What are they thinking? So unapologetically greedy… yet the only alternative is Rogers.

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