The future of Sonos

For the first time ever I’m beginning to question the strategy behind Sonos. This was always a company on the bleeding edge of innovation and I’m genuinely concerned about their future. The signs are there:

  1. They promised integration with Amazon Echo over a year ago – there’s still no sign of even the beta software update.
  2. Amazon have innovated and, in my opinion, overtaken Sonos in terms of features in their Echo range of products. They release updates weekly, support more and more third party services and are just simply easier to use. Only just last week they quietly rolled out a group feature – enabling speakers to be listened to at the same time.
  3. The reliability of my Sonos network has deteriorated lately. Unreliable internet is no longer a problem on my network – so that’s ruled out. But I’m finding that radio (TuneIn) frequently drops out and speakers struggle to connect to my music library at times.
  4. The app is hard to use. It’s something I’ve long been critical of, but in an era of voice commands the interface is feeling tired and awkward to use.

I love sonos and have been an advocate for years. I’ve even been an official tester of their software (under a NDA). However, I’m concerned about what’s going on with the company. With the growth of Amazon Echo and undoubtedly the future success of Apple HomePod, Sonos needs to nail their Echo integration as soon as possible and combine it with a major tech overhaul.
Having quality speakers is not an argument anymore for them – I’d argue that’s made them complacent. The Amazon Echo approach is based on flexibility. For example they allow the speakers to be paired with any Bluetooth speaker you want (getting around the speaker quality issues). Plus, there are already reports coming in that Apple’s HomePod sounds superior to the Sonos Play 5 flagship speaker.

I hope I am wrong to be this concerned. I also hope the Sonos upcoming October announcement offers up something special. But for the time being I’m not buying any more Sonos speakers until their future becomes a bit more clear.

Taking back control of my data

With a number of recent high profile hacks combined with my growing sense of caution about storing my data with third parties online, I have decided to start an ambitious project of shifting over my entire cloud data to a NAS.

It’s not going to be easy but I’m increasingly not convinced that my data is secure online anymore.

Sure I take precautions, I run two factor on all my main online services and use LastPass. I also trust many of the companies I store my data with; such as Google, Apple (especially), Dropbox and Evernote. But the issue for me is more about ownership and control of my data. Post-Snowden, I no longer have the confidence that these companies will, in the long term, be able to guarantee that my data will be securely held and not be vulnerable to Government agencies, third party companies and others.

In short, I want to know exactly where my data is, how it is secured and who is accountable for its security.

Evolution

These are not new concerns for me. When I bought my first NAS in 2015 (ReadyNas 214) my plan back then was to pull all my private media such as videos and music into a single location. The objective then though was slightly different. It was about bandwidth management and designed to reduce my dependency on online media streaming. It worked well – it still does. My entire music library plus other media sit comfortably on a secure server on my network.

But that’s only part of the picture. What the setup lacks is a viable alternative for file storage, secure notes and other more private data I wish to retain ownership of.

What I’ve realised is that my Netgear ReadyNas 214 is not the right product for my needs, given my desire to move away from third party cloud services. I have outgrown it.

The solution

I’ve been reading and hearing great things about Synology NAS hardware. They offer quality hardware but most importantly run an incredibly powerful OS with hundreds of well supported apps.

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I have just ordered the Synology DS 216+II two bay NAS. From what I have researched and heard, this looks like the ultimate solution for what I’m trying achieve.

Synology OS and hardware supports multiple apps which offer Evernote, Dropbox and photo storage equivalents – but with the fundamental difference of data storage being on my own server. If the project works really well, I also plan to run my own mail server and map over my domain name to it.

So the project has begun. It won’t be easy. But I’m excited. Because above all else I’m determined to pull back all my cloud data to where it belongs – with me.

Platform emancipation

I love Android. Always have done. But over the years since I’ve been using it in parallel to iOS I have generally found iOS superior. iOS lacks the flexibility of Android, but the consistency of use, the higher quality apps and seemless integration of hardware and software has always made iOS such a great experience.

Over the last few years, i’ve been on a journey of trying to become platform agnostic. I’ve invested in cloud services which, by definition, are all platform independent (such as EverNote, numerous Google services and Microsoft Office365.) Locally, I’ve invested in a NAS and running my music library off it, together with Plex (media / server).

I’m also heavily invested in the ‘internet of things’. All my devices from Philips Hue lighting , Sonos, WeMo switches, Canary and most recently my Amazon Echo (full review to follow soon) can all run/be accessed on any platform of choice.

With all that infrastructure in place, I’m now at the point where I’m changing a number of my computing devices.

img_0034My first choice, is that I’m finally ditching my iPhone as my primary phone and replacing it with an Android phone – the outstanding OnePlus 3. (I still own the OnePlus 1 – which I loved) Why? Because, I miss Android and it’s flexibility and secondly because, as I blogged recently, I find it difficult to justify iPhone prices anymore. But perhaps, more importantly – I don’t like what Apple has become to its millions of users. It’s a fashion accessory. It’s a must have item. Folk want to be seen with the latest iPhone because, like any designer label it demonstrates wealth, style and prestige. The type of users that now seem to dominate iPhones sales are fashionistas – the original geeks are few and far between. Ironically, they care less about what the iphone is capable of and more about what the latest colour is. In short, it’s crass. I no longer want to be a part of it. I’m going back to my linux roots and intend to move forward with an Android device in hand once more.

I’m also planning to ditch my MB Pro. (I’ve already handed off my MB Air). In short, I only use it now to maintain my server. It’s surplus to requirements. I plan to buy either a ChromeBook or a laptop optimised for running Ubuntu Linux (such as the Dell XPS developers edition).

With these changes in place, by the end of the year, the only Apple device I’ll actually own is my iPad Pro 12.9” . (Which I absolutely love). In fact, it’s now my go to computer of choice. And since my break-through of being able to produce and edit my weekly podcast,  www.blackonblues.com , I can see myself sticking with it for a very long time.

 

From Evernote to OneNote 

I’ve been a loyal Evernote premium users since April 2008. I’ve always loved the company. But sadly not anymore. Their new 2 device only pricing structure makes little sense to me.

Finally Microsoft have released the Evernote exporter to OneNote. So I’m moving over. Fingers crossed the transition works. I’ll keep you posted.
But until then, thanks for the memories Evernote. But I see more value from OneNote.

update: Having played around with OneNote I have to say I just didn’t like the UI. Far too much skeuomorphic design for my liking and not enough granularity. I’ll stick with Evernote. On the positive – it’s always good practice to routinely check the market for alternative apps. This little exercise confirmed to me that Evernote still meets my needs.

Thoughts ahead of the iPhone 7 launch 

So it’s the Apple iPhone launch tomorrow, presumably to be labeled as ‘iPhone 7/plus’. 

Expect to be told it’s the best iPhone yet. And expect to be told that the decision to ditch the 3.5mm headphone jack is because Apple are by nature one of the most forward looking visionary technology companies in the world. 

Prepare to marvel at the incredible duel lens array camera on the iPhone 7+ and be inspired by the ability to shot 4k video at 60 frames per second. Perhaps even let them tell you why you absolutely need 256GB of storage. And expect to be blown away by the new black colour. 

My thinking over the last few months has significantly shifted away from these annual launches. 

Mobile phone technology peaked about three years ago. In my opinion, if your phone is an iPhone 5 or newer, is working fine and still holding its battery charge then keep it.

If you do wish to get a new phone, for the first time in years, I think I’ll genuinely find it difficult to recommend spending Apple iPhone amounts of money anymore. 

Premium prices for premium handsets feels pretty unnecessary in 2016. Companies such as OnePlus offer top spec flagship phones for less than half the price of typical top spec iPhones or Samsung Galaxy lines. 

I’ve reluctantly concluded that the value proposition for an iPhone is no longer there anymore. 

Of course I’ll be watching the launch tomorrow – if only to see how the heck they justify selling a phone without a headphone jack.

Why my iPhone 6plus will be my last iPhone…

For years now, I’ve judged the various iPhones I’ve owned as offering value for money. Yes, they are expensive but I’ve always felt that price guaranteed quality hardware and outstanding software that work seamlessly together. Now I’m not so sure that’s the case. 
Two things have changed my thinking. Firstly the almost certain likelihood that the next iPhone 7 will loose the 3.5mm headphone jack. 

No matter what the arguments from Apple are for doing this – it’s a ridiculous decision. It’s very simple. If this rumour turns out to be true – I’m out. Permanently. 

Secondly, is something more fundamental. I no longer feel the iPhone offers value compared to some of the new low-cost but exceptionally priced handsets such as the outstanding OnePlus 3. 
My iPhone 6plus may very well be my last.

Using the web overseas: a field guide

I have spent the last few years of my life overseas. Being a geek, I’ve always been fascinated by the technology that makes life abroad that bit more bearable. So I thought I’d share some of experiences of how I use technology overseas. This post focuses on using the web.

A secure connection: Obvious – I know. But it’s worth stating the obvious. The internet has literally transformed how we communicate and entertain ourselves over recent years. But sadly, the tradition of the open web is changing fast. Services including media streaming and news sites are often limited by geographic location (BBC iPlayer is a good example). In addition to this, countries around the world have differing perspectives on internet freedom. Many countries increasingly choose to intercept citizens web-browsing and sites are often blocked. Much will depend on where you are. For example, if you’re on a public hotspot or on hotel wifi it’s probably not a good idea to download email, use social media sites or do online banking. My approach around this has always been to maintain a VPN account with a UK provider that I trust (or at least trust more than unfettered open internet access). These VPN accounts can cost as little as £5 per month and can be configured on all modern hardware from smartphones through to laptops. As I’m living permanently overseas I’ve gone one step further and actually invested in the ASUS N66U DSL router which includes VPN support. It’s a couple of years old now, so ASUS probably have improved models by now. In effect, all my devices that sit under the router sit on a virtual UK network. This approach enables me to use UK geo-fenced apps on the devices which don’t support VPNs directly, such as my Apple TV and my LG TV.

Mobile connectivity: One of the most frequent questions people ask me is around ‘roaming’. You’ll be surprised, how many people get stung on failing to:  1. turn data roaming off on their mobile phone and 2. underestimating the cost of making and receiving calls outside of the EU.

My advice is simple. If you’re outside of the EU – do not make and receive calls on your UK phone. The first thing to do is pick up a local SIM and pay for a data/SMS/call bundle.  It will almost always be cheaper than using your UK sim. To do this you will obviously need a carrier unlocked phone first – so come prepared.

TuGo: My approach, which I highly recommend is to have an O2 account. O2 launched a few years ago a game changing service called ‘TuGo’. It’s incredible. Basically you can make and receive UK calls/SMS via their TuGo app on your smartphone or tablet. Essentially, all you need is some form of internet connection (fixed line/wifi or cellular).  I use it daily and the service is exceptional.

Worth also flagging that if you’re a Three member then you can also benefit from their ‘Feel at Home’ deal.  It’s limited to 18 or so countries at the moment (mainly Europe and other developed nations). In a nutshell you can use data and make/receive calls/SMS without incurring roaming charges.

Combine the local data service with your VPN service and you’re good to go.

Two factor authentication: People under-estimate the importance of a good password. Many sites, such as Google, Evernote, Twitter and Facebook all support two-factor or two-step authentication. Essentially, this requires you to: 1. correctly input your site password when logging on for the first time on a new device and 2. enter a unique random code generated by a two factor authentication app such as (Authy). My advice, where possible use two step authentication. At the very least, if your site password is compromised, you can take assurance that they physically need access to your phone to generate the second authentication code.

The Pebble 2 and Pebble Core – I’m backing them

I’ve been a fan of the smartwatch company, Pebble since buying their first gen Pebble a few years back. I love the flexibility of the OS, customisation and battery life of the watches. Most recently, I bought the excellent Pebble Time, water proof to 30 metres, an e-ink colour display and 7-day battery life.

So I’ve just decided to back them on Kickstarter for their new product line:

I’m pretty excited about the hack-able possibilities of the Pebble core. Plus the promise of 10 day battery life on the Time 2 combined with an HR monitor and bigger display is compelling.