Welcome, iPod Touch

iPod TouchLast week I added a new iPod to the family - the iPod Touch. This is not just an iPod in the sense of music, but an iPod in the sense of a truly portable network device with a sexy interface to boot. The iPod is no longer the music player that it was when it was originally released, with music now just playing a much smaller part of the product.

When planning my purchase I was torn between the iPod Touch and the iPhone, the only differentiating factors being the camera and the phone capabilities (and therefore its ubiquitous data connection). At basically the same initial price for both, it didn't make sense for me to go for a mobile phone with an 18 month contract that had a below par camera when I could also go for a free Nokia N95 and its embedded 5 megapixel camera while paying around the same amount of money on a contract. Thanks to my employer I already had a chance to try out Nokia's internet enabled camera and loved its quality and ability to post photos directly to the internet and am looking forward to being able to do that again in the near future.

There's quite a bit of overlap between the iPod Touch and the N95, but the Touch has an interface that's just so much nicer to use than the N95, for mail and web browsing especially. Talking of overlap, at eight gigabytes the device isn't big enough to hold my entire iTunes collection, so I don't think I'll be ditching my 80 gigabyte iPod Classic any time soon.

Despite being very pleased overall with the Touch, there are a few things that I'd really love to see added to the device:

  • Media streaming from other iTunes libraries on the network
  • Wireless syncing with host computer
  • Jabber chat client
  • Video plugins for Safari to allow viewing of RealPlayer content (e.g. from the BBC)
  • Email search in the Mail app (server-side)

Without a cellular data connection, the wifi on the device is very important for those times you want to access the internet when out and about. There are a number of UK companies and organisations starting to provide free wifi in their premises (e.g. Wetherspoons pubs, McDonalds, local libraries and other places) and in public spaces which is great, and the Cloud has dropped their monthly fees for iPod Touch owners to a price that mirrors what you'd pay for a single hour at most wireless hotspots.

It's also amazing how many other venues have wifi available in them thanks to some unknown third party provider. This is a grey area when it comes to the law though, with wifi theft already being punished under the Communications Act 2003 in a number of cases. I say it's a grey area because there is often no easy way of telling if an open wifi hotspot has been intentionally provided free of charge either by a venue or by someone else actively sharing their connection for passers-by.

Firewalls for dial-up connections

In all my years of using the internet at home, where we are still limited to using dialup connections because of our location, I had never realised quite how important firewalls are for computers which aren't continuously connected to the internet. I used to think the main use for firewalls was to protect those computers which were always connected to the internet and therefore always vulnerable to hacking.

My thinking on that has changed considerably in the past few days having set up a new computer at home for my family. I realised that within minutes of connecting it up, there were machines probing the computer from all around the world trying to find ports on the computer which were vulnerable to attack. Presumably these attempts weren't hackers themselves but drone machines which had become infected by viruses, instructed to probe other computers and propogate the virus wherever they can.

The new computer comes with software which records the details of all attempts to gain access to the computer, which the old machine didn't have. Not having this facility in the past, I've never realised quite how vulnerable machines are, even when they're assigned a dynamic IP address. I had been thinking about it from the wrong angle though, thinking the main threat was hackers knowing who you are and trying to access your data. I hadn't really considered the other side of it, where it doesn't matter who you are as long as your computer is susceptible to being breached in order to install viruses.

I was shocked to find other computers using our ISP, probing for holes in the firewall. Having said that, IP addresses are probably scanned in sequence so computers on the same network will almost certainly be probed before those that are further away, on different networks. Later on in the day I discovered there were upwards of 10 computers a minute trying to access a certain port, many of which were from university residences in the US where viruses are rife. It seemed though that by disconnecting and reconnecting - to obtain a different IP address - these threats went away, at least for now.

It just goes to show how important firewalls are, for any connection. No matter how long or how often you are connected to the internet, you are always at risk of being hacked.

Towards a wireless Isle of Man

Towards a wireless Isle of ManA few weeks back I came across a wi-fi hotspot in the departure lounge of the Isle of Man Airport - useful too, as the flight I was supposed to be catching was cancelled due to technical problems. The hotspot was the first I'd heard of on the island and at the time I couldn't find out much about it, except for the fact that it was part of a trial, and as such would be running as a free service. It was only tonight that I discovered more about the wi-fi trials, with another public area hotspot already being in operation and others on the way this year. The scheme is part of the Isle of Man Government's e-business strategy to promote the island to the wider business community whilst also making services more accessible to Manx residents.

These public hotspots, which are running as a free service for a year, are currently located at the Airport (near Castletown) and the Villa Marina (Douglas) with further hotspots planned for the NSC sports complex, the Manx Museum and the Sea Terminal - all in Douglas, the home of about half of the island's population. Other wi-fi hotspots are being promoted in hotels such as the Ascot and also a new bar and grill called Cunninghams, based in Douglas. Almost certainly there will be others but these are just two of the private sector hotspots I've heard of lately.

It is great to see that the island is taking up the wireless revolution, but it would be even better to see them embracing more wireless broadband technologies which offered high speed data access to rural communities. Half of the island's population live in the main conurbation of Douglas and Onchan, and many of the rest live within a short distance of the other towns of the island (many of which house a telephone exchange) but there are a large number of people living in the countryside who have no access to broadband at all. The government has been good at offering grants for ISDN, ADSL, and more recently even wireless broadband links, but there are restrictions as to who can use them. To make it viable for the company offering the services, they have to target appartment blocks and small out-of-ADSL-reach communities but still can't really target lone households unless they happen to be in the path of those links planned already.

Manx Telecom, the sole provider of telecommunications on the island, has always been at the forefront of mobile phone technology, testing the first European 3G networks and also now high speed HSDPA links, which could feasibly bring broadband to everybody else. I am keen to see how that progresses but judging by the lack of services launched off the 3G tests, I won't hold my breath.

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