An all too common occurrence… Students have lost their thesis, major work or other assignments as they left their USB key in a computer lab or have suffered at the hand of data corruption (or even as I have done once, human stupidity).
Ever since I worked back on the helpdesk all those years ago where floppy disks and (dare I say it) ZIP disks were the rage, I have seen many cases of students losing their form of portable media and many hours work. Another case I see all too often is that form of portable media becoming corrupt or accidentally erased and once again a student losing enough time and effort to bring even the roughest and toughest blokes to tears.
So today I want to ask EVERY SINGLE UNIVERSITY STUDENT OUT THERE to supplement your portable media with a free account from Dropbox. Free accounts come with 2GB of online storage where you can store your files and transfer them between home and uni.
The key benefits of Dropbox include:
You can’t lose the storage medium (save forgetting your account details) which means no more signs like this one up around uni begging for the return of a lost USB thumbdrive.
Dropbox stores historical versions of a file so if you ever accidentally upload a corrupt version you can get the previous copy back so you have not lost all your work.
You can sync Dropbox between devices such as the iPhone, iPad, home/work computers and so on to ensure that you can access your files anywhere and they will automagically be kept in sync.
Files can be accessed straight from the web without having to download any special software while you are at uni
Lastly you can created shared folders with your other group partners to share files that you are working on, no more emailing 30 copies around and forgetting which one is the most recent, just go to Dropbox and access the latest version or upload a new one. The version history is also a blessing for those doing group work after someone deletes a section which you worked immensely hard on and want to get back (can you tell I have experienced this one personally).
So please, save my sanity and do away with your USB thumbdrives, USB Keys, flashdrives, floppy disks, ZIP disks, and any other form of medium that can easily be lost and/or corrupted. A little time spent after each hard study session uploading your documents can save you many tears down the track and it is easy and most of all FREE!
I will happily admit that I am throwing in a referral link here so I can try to get some more free space on Dropbox… why, because I use it every day. So if you don’t have an account sign up for one today and protect your uni work.
Today I had the privilege of following up my Open Letter to Vivid Wireless with a telephone interview with Martin Mercer who is the CEO of Vivid Wireless and Nicole Christian who is the Manager for Customer Experience and Retention at Vivid Wireless. Below is a transcript of the call I had with Martin which I feel answers a lot of the issues I had in my original letter and some extra ones that I managed to squeeze in as well.
I welcome any comments and feedback on the questions please let me know your thoughts. I openly welcome (and request) that you leave thoughts, feedback or the like as a comment at the bottom.
If you wish to jump to a particular topic (as it was a half hour call so there was a lot we covered) please take a look at the below sections
Stuart: Thank you very much for taking the time to let me follow up from my original query, as I mentioned I have had quite a bit of traffic coming through the blog so I thought I would take this opportunity to get a bit more feedback from you, and hopefully clear a few things up. I spent last night going through quite a few of the forums on Whirlpool and the Vivid Wireless forums to put together some questions that will hopefully clear the air for some of the users.
So Martin, in recent weeks a lot of the speed issues seem to have been resolved that users were experiencing, but one of the concerns for the users including both light and heavy users was that when the unlimited plan was turned on the network capacity just wasn’t able to handle the influx of high download users. Has Vivid done anything behind the scenes to ensure this will not happen again or if it does that it is diagnosed prior to becoming a significant impact to the user base?
Martin: There’s been lots… we’ve learnt a lot in the last few months Stuart. There were several issues that affected network speeds and the fundamental cause at the end of the day was that the demand for the unlimited plan exceeded our expectations. But we provisioned extra backhaul capacity but the response to the advertising and the response to the new offers exceeded what we really expected. It was compounded by one of our suppliers was actually late in provisioning capacity, so if everything had gone according to plan we would have had sufficient backhaul capacity to avoid running into that issue but it didn’t work out that way.
The other issue that I think I posted on the forum about was due to settings on core routers and that was only revealed when we got the extra capacity for the network so we fixed the core router issue and we learned from the provisioning issues so that now we have a policy that we always have sufficient bandwidth and every time we get to about 75 or 80% capacity we automatically provision extra backhaul capacity to avoid a reoccurrence of any of those problems.
Stuart: Beautiful that is great to hear and it is always good to learn from our experiences, as I work in IT and so I know that these things do happen.
Stuart: Out of curiosity GeneronimoS mentioned on the Vivid Wireless forums, and I will just give a quick quote from him “I know that Vivid have been capping people who are downloading like 40 gigs in 3 days as a warning, but that won’t stop them forever.” I just wanted to seek clarification on if users have actually been capped at this stage for any reason on the unlimited plan or if this was a misconception.
Martin: Definitely a misconception, we don’t have any capping at all at this stage and we certainly don’t apply policies down to the level of individuals. So we don’t have any policies at any level down to individual users irrespective of how much network resources they use.
Stuart: Great, I just wanted to clear that up because I saw that and I thought that it doesn’t make a lot of sense from a business perspective and so I wanted to ensure we had the opportunity to clear that one up.
Martin: I’m glad we have the chance because we’ve been as transparent as we can with our whole approach to management of the traffic on the network and we don’t want those misconceptions as we don’t cap individual users or generally cap or shape traffic either.
Stuart: In regards to IPv6, which is the new revision designed to replace IPv4 protocol, does Vivid have a timeframe for when this is likely to be supported as a lot of Australian ISPs don’t have any publically available plan as to when they will be supporting the new version of the IP protocol.
Martin: That is a very timely question Stuart as I asked our chief technology person that only two weeks ago and we are planning for it at the moment. There are some things that are out of our control like our current radio access network technology does not support IPv6 , the next generation will. It is really a chicken and egg situation for us we are now planning a nationwide rollout and we will be implementing the next version of the protocol and technology and we will be able to support IPv6 and we are asking the question of when not IF and we haven’t defined a clear timetable yet but we are doing the work now to prepare for the migration to IPv6.
Stuart: Well that is comforting to know as I have been writing an assignment on this for university quite recently. And seeing how quickly the IP address pool for IPv4 is being depleted it really is that chicken and egg situation of “we don’t need it now but we will eventually” and having to spend that money to actually provision and prepare. It really is that chicken and egg.
Martin: Just to reassure you our allocation of [IPv4] addresses, we have more than enough to meet our current needs and demands for years to come. We are not going to run out of IP addresses anytime soon but we are very aware that it is an issue that the industry as a whole needs to address.
Stuart: That is comforting to know that we will always be able to get on [to Vivid Wireless].
Stuart: I have been lucky enough to assist with beta testing the new firmware that was released just yesterday (I believe) and I have noticed that a lot of updates have been rolled into the one firmware for the home gateway. While I can understand from a testing perspective the benefit to doing this and rolling all the testing up in one, are there any plans to release more incremental updates, especially in the early stages so that issues such as the router crashing do not take so long to resolve?
Martin: That is a good question Stuart and also thank you very much for being one of our Beta testers, it’s the people with more exceptional usage patterns and usage behaviours that help us uncover the bugs that ordinary users never experience. The Firmware update process [is in consultation with] our vendor who will develop the firmware upgrade and some of the software challenges are more complex to fix and at this stage it just so happens that the crashing issue took a while to resolve and we were able to roll several items into the one release. We actually have done about three or four firmware upgrades to the home gateway already and the earlier ones were small incremental fixes like you suggested. But this time because of the time of the development of the different fixes some were shorter to develop and some were longer to develop and they just happened to come together at the same time. So we did an upgrade but generally speaking in an ideal world we will be doing constant firmware upgrades that will put in fixes as they are identified and that has [so far] been the practice with the home gateway and the USB modems.
Stuart: No worries, interestingly enough on that as a slight aside I am one of the slightly geeky users as would have already been apparent and I have some custom settings which I have set up in the gateway through the engineer login which is obviously only for advanced users. I noticed when I upgraded the firmware those got erased and reverted back to the originals. With over the air firmware updates this could become a potential issue for those users that have specific configuration requirements. Is that something that has been taken into account?
Martin: It has been taken into account but it has been very hard to avoid Stuart, part of the standard upgrade is the factory reset and the settings change back to the default. If the exceptional user has gone in there and changed the configuration [this makes things more difficult].
Stuart: I guess just as a possibility for the future , would it be possible to be notified when there is a firmware update but not directly get that firmware update ([for example] stop the over the air update for those exceptional users) so that they can intervene where required?
Martin: I am sure we can look at something like that Stuart it is a good suggestion.
Stuart: Great. Now this is another one that we can hopefully clear a bit of the air and that is the downloading of torrent files on the Vivid network. At this stage my understanding is that there is no blocking or “always on shaping” to torrents but they may prioritised lower than other traffic during peak congestion periods. Furthermore I believe with the issues surrounding the downloading of *.torrent files are made worse by issues with the home gateway firmware for which a currently undiagnosed reason during high load certain *.torrent files are unable to be downloaded from the web.
Martin: Peer to Peer is not my strong point but let me try to make hands of this as openly and honestly as I can. As I understand it there is a .torrent file which is almost like the key to unlock the torrent that you download and then you use that to actually [download] the torrent file. There has been an issue with downloading the .torrent file and we posted a workaround on our forum around a month ago now and there is a fix for that which is imminent, we believe we have a fix working for that now we are just going through the final tests so hopefully we will be able to get that out very soon. So hopefully the .torrent file itself is almost fixed.
In regards to your other question as to whether we shape any traffic the answer, no we don’t. No shaping takes place at all, but we do have prioritisation. One of the things, when you’ve got a fourth generation network like ours one of the things that changes is the quality of service and we utilise that in our network. We give the highest priority to time-critical traffic and lowest priority to non-time-critical traffic so for example voice traffic gets prioritised over all other traffic, the second priority is what I will call general internet traffic, so protocols like HTTP and others and the final priority, the third priority, is peer to peer and other non-time-critical traffic. Therefore it doesn’t get shaped it just means that the available bandwidth is shared between those and prioritised accordingly.
Stuart: That makes perfect sense, I have noticed that even during peak periods and even while I was doing testing with the modem and maxing out my connection, I was still able to make telephone calls through the VOIP gateway and didn’t have a single issue, the calls just went through flawlessly. So that is certainly evident of why you have that prioritisation in place.
Martin: Generally it is a balancing act and what we are trying to do to make sure that every customer has a good experience. There is some sort of traffic as you say like VOIP that if you don’t prioritise then the experience will be bad and that is not a good customer experience. So we just use prioritisation to make sure we get that balance to ensure we use the network to ensure to the best customer experience possible.
Stuart: Since the release of Vivid’s Unlimited plan a lot of ISPs have been releasing 1TB plans and now even plans that exceed the 1TB barrier. With the release of such plans the expectations of Australians as to exactly what defines an unlimited service has increased drastically over what it may have been six or seven months ago. How is Vivid positioned to support massive downloads such as these in the future especially with services such as Foxtel on the xBox being released in the very near future that will consume quite a lot of bandwidth and other IPTV type services.
Martin: Really good question, let me just point out though that terabyte plans in theory aren’t an unlimited plan whereas unlimited plans have unlimited terabytes. But in practice terabyte plans may as well be unlimited as most users will never download that amount.
Stuart: And in fact the actual real life speed even if you were downloading 27x7x365 you would still not be able to reach that.
Martin: Exactly so they may as well be unlimited. So people who say we are never going to do unlimited plans but we will do the next best thing and do a terabyte plan are really sort of being a bit refute. In answer to your second question we are very well placed to deal with delivering a very good customer experience even with customers’ requirements growing as they are because what we have which none of the other wireless broadband providers have is spectrum. That is something that really limits the internet experience for wireless customers, not the backhaul and yes we had short term problem with having backhaul capacity available which has since been resolved but it is actually the spectrum to the base stations that as it gets all used up which causes the experience to degrade. We have more spectrum than anybody else and we only have to support data, not data and voice and we will never have as many customers as Optus or Vodafone or Telstra so for that reason we are always going to have a lot more spectrum or a lot more bandwidth than any other wireless provider. But it could well be in the future that wireless is not the best solution for people who want to enjoy the sort of high definition video streaming and real time high definition video and I think that people are going to have to get very clear on what their needs are and find what can be delivered and it may be that wireless even our superior wireless isn’t the right solution for people who really want to use high bandwidth [applications].
Stuart: Very true and looking forward even with the National Broadband network which isn’t likely to be completely rolled out until 2017 a lot can change in that time. However in the meantime not being able to get ADSL in my situation and being able to get Vivid Wireless, as I have mentioned I am a rather heavy user. 99% of the time I am getting a perfect connection with no issues but for those high definition applications as you said it may not be the solution in the long term.
Martin: Where do you live out of curiosity?
Stuart: I live in C[ensored] Which is technically right at the outer limit of your coverage area. I am right on the edge of where your maps say there is no coverage however luckily I get a perfect connection.
Martin: I was going to say you must be very close to being out of coverage. That is very interesting.
Stuart: I connect to the Petersham tower actually so I found that quite interesting to see how far the range is so I am technically right on the very border edge of the coverage area.
Martin: We deliberately produce fairly conservative coverage maps because we would rather turn customers away than have customers with a bad experience.
Stuart: I guess now that the initial rollout is now completed, are there any plans to expand outside of the Sydney CBD further or are you looking at targeting other areas that are not currently covered such as Brisbane.
Martin: We can’t wait to expand the network to cover all of Sydney and all of Melbourne, in the public domain we are out there at the moment talking to a range of potential investors and we will be expanding the network to cover all major cities as soon as we can.
Stuart: In regards to customer service, firstly before I go any further, personally I have always had quite good customer service from Vivid Wireless, one thing that I have to say is exceptional that I have not seen in any other company previously is that when a staff member said they would call me back. I was always called back five or ten minutes ahead of time so I did not have to call up constantly chasing up my issues so I do have to give kudos there where it is due.
However I have noticed on one forum and also through my own experiences if you email the support team I have not had a single case that has not received the generic response “it is best if you call us for this issue on xxx”. Is this an initial teething problem or is the preferred method of technical support through the phone? Obviously when you email through a couple of times and get these replies in the end I stopped emailing so I wanted to find out if this is a general practice or something that has been overlooked.
Martin: I think that is an area we can do better in Stuart, there is no doubt. Those technical support emails are answered and dealt with by the same people as in the call centre. Early on when they were learning their skills and a lot were inexperienced with the system they didn’t always have the confidence to answer in an email. We also had canned responses that weren’t very good and then they found that the answer to a lot of emails were actually quite complicated and they are quite difficult to answer via email as they require some level of troubleshooting to actually understand what the problem really is. So we are still getting to grips with how best to deal with technical enquiries via email and there probably is a tendency on the part of the customer service reps to look at it and just think “oh if I can just get the customer on the phone I can resolve this more easily as I need to troubleshoot this properly if they just call me” and to then email the customer requesting a call and this is an area we can do better in but it is something that we are aware of and at the moment it is just a) the skills issue which we are addressing very quickly and b) often it is the easiest way to resolve the issue for customer enquiries as if we send an email back and it does not resolve the problem then a customer may be unsatisfied.
Stuart: That makes perfect sense, thank you for clearing that up.
Stuart: Finally I just wanted to ask one more question to finish off. If users are experiencing speed issues (or otherwise) as I have seen on the forums recently there are still a few isolated users reporting speed issues, and they are having problems outside of normal technical support hours what information would you recommend they note down other than the time and what they were doing so that they can contact support the next day for further diagnosis.
Martin: Well you have mentioned two of them which is the time and more importantly the URL as that gives us a sense of whether it was international or local or what part of the network it may be. In addition to that the obvious things such as signal strength (RSSI and CINR values), a speed test from SpeedTest.net (noting the upload and download speeds or better yet a screenshot), also what other activity was being done at the time, and the nature of the activity that you were doing. Also what operating system you were using such as a mac laptop and what device you were using to connect to the network.
Stuart: That’s great I will be sure to note it down on my blog so that people who are suffering any isolated cases can get them diagnosed quickly and efficiently.
Yesterday I decided that it would be interesting to cover the ins and outs of ebooks including covering the appeal of ebooks, the convenience of ebooks, what you might find ebooks useful for and what are the issues surrounding ebooks. Hence begins this article covering the good, the bad, and the downright ugly aspects of the modern alternative to the paperback book.
Convenience: This can be classified into two key areas, firstly with a compatible device you can carry hundreds or even thousands of ebooks at the one time whereby being able to carry your entire library with you wherever you go. Secondly in situations where space or weight is at a premium, an ebook reader will generally weigh less and take less space than the equivalent paperback and certainly less than carrying multiple paperback books.
Cost-effective: As ebooks are online downloads, there are no shipping costs and (I would assume) far less costs that would generally be associated with physical wholesale distribution therefore resulting in generally lower costs to purchase an ebook as opposed to its paperback cousin.
Environmentally friendly: For every ebook purchased instead of a paperback, that brings the world one step closer to saving more trees from being cut down and turned into books. If in future society moves closer to replacing the majority of paperbacks with ebooks this could help eliminate at least a portion of our natural resource consumption.
Youth appeal: This largely comes from my own personal opinion, however with increased access to ebooks I am finding that I am beginning to read more as well is more frequently due to the accessibility of books on my phone as well as other electronic devices that I carry day to day. I feel that younger generations may experience the same appeal that ebooks provide in that they can be purchased and downloaded instantly which appeals to impulse buying habits and the convenience allows them to read at any time where they may find a few spare minutes each day that they need to stave off boredom.
Searchable: Although this does not cover all ebooks, the majority of ebooks can be searched like any other text document you may have on your computer. This can be particularly useful when looking for quotes, or trying to find details for research and study purposes.
Page size: As we move to ebooks there is no standard page size and often with ebook readers such as phones, one thing that must be accepted is that we will not always be able to see a full page on the screen at one time. Thus far I have not found this to be an overly annoying problem, however I fear that when trying to read a book containing images, graphs or tables, these little screens could become a big problem.
Power: to be honest this is a key problem with everything in the digital age, no power equals trouble. For the most part this doesn’t create too much of a problem, however there is the obvious complaint that if the power goes out and their reading device runs out of power their book will no longer be available to read until power is restored.
Backups: in certain cases a user may end up being responsible for their own backups of the books that they purchase. If their computer or reader fails they may not be able to request an additional copy of the download from the original source. Buyer beware, make sure you keep a safe copy of your purchase.
The downright ugly:
Digital Rights Management A.K.A. DRM: Digital rights management is the protection that most publishers put on their digital downloads. Due to incompatibilities between formats, a book that you purchase through one site may not work on the same devices as those from a different site. For example, a book purchased on the Amazon Kindle platform may not be readable on your Blackberry (as an example) until such a time that Amazon decides to support the Blackberry with a client application.This creates compatibility issues especially when you find that you have a platform of choice that you purchase most of your books on, and then find that the book you want is only available on a competing platform. Obviously with paperbacks this would never be an issue.Personally, I feel that with time, and logical thinking, DRM will be relaxed similar to how it has been with music (DRM Free MP3s and DRM free music on iTunes). However at this stage I do not see this happening any time soon. Industry either needs to agree on a single standard or abolish the use of DRM all together to improve the appeal of ebooks to the consumer, which in turn will eliminate a large portion of the confusion surrounding formats and who should by what.
International markets: With the increasing access to international markets that the internet has provided, any consumer could source a book (or really most products) from their choice of retailers worldwide. This provided the opportunity to source books that may not be sold locally from an international retailer and have the products mailed to you. However with the ebook, this is not always the case. I have stumbled across several examples of books that were restricted for sale within the US and Canada only so the benefits of accessing materials from an international market are beginning to shrink and become more restrictive again (in certain cases).
Device/Support/Store goes bust: At this stage I believe this may be largely untested, but lets take the hypothetical situation that you have purchased ebooks in a particular format, and the company decides to stop supporting that format or producing new devices to read the format on. Quite simply you may be left with a book that is no longer readable. This is a danger with any sort of digital purchase, however is something that should be taken into consideration when purchasing ebooks (especially those with DRM that cannot be ported to a competing platform).
OK, now that we have that all out of the way, there are two key questions I would like to sum this up in, why would you, and why wouldn’t you.
Why would you?
If you are looking for something that you need quickly (and in some cases instantly) then ebooks are great. No going to the bookstore and no waiting in line at the checkout. If you travel a lot or (like me) need to carry a range of textbooks for university then a couple of megabytes on a computer are far more pleasant than a couple of bricks on your back.
Why wouldn’t you?
For those that are not technically savvy, the nature of where you should be purchasing from and which books are compatible with which devices could be confusing. If you are not completely aware of the different formats and “Who supports what” then you may end up purchasing a book that you cannot read.
With the advent of products like the Amazon Kindle and the iPad as well as newer tablet PCs and other up and coming devices that can read ebooks, the availability and usability of ebooks is only going to become easier and more readily available.
If you are happy to stick to one platform and ensure all your purchases come from there, you should have no issues with ebooks and will likely find them a great alternative to the paperback. As mentioned above I hope that the publishers see the light and relax the DRM or at least agree on a single standard that all devices should support so that books can be used anywhere you need/want them.
Personally I am a convert, I am loving the ebooks and as a student they are a very welcome alternative. However I am curious to hear your thoughts, what are your experiences with ebooks? Have you tried them and did you find them easy to purchase and read or more difficult and confusing?