As indicated in previous posts (here and here) I recently completed a ten day European trip to Hanover, Germany for CeBit and returned via London where I visited the Skype offices. But Skype was not the only communications play I explored and employed during this trip. There are other players out there having their own successes. Besides using Skype for many calls back home and to others amongst my contacts, I also had the opportunity to try out other technologies and services using my Blackberry 8700, my Nokia N80i, my SlingBox Pro, a rental car GPS system and high speed European trains.
First the most underpromoted feature of the Blackberry has to be Blackberry Messenger. This is basically an Instant Messaging service that operates, not via the standard GSM data channel and Internet, but rather via a direct (PIN to PIN) messaging channel that instantaneously transmits messages to other Blackberry Messenger contacts. As a result there is no latency between sending and receiving a message. It allowed me to keep in tight contact with the person who accompanied me on this trip but had a different agenda of meetings at CeBit. It also allowed me to keep in instantaneous contact with a key contact back in Canada re some business issues. It has become a most valuable tool for text chat with those I work most closely with, letting them know of say, delays as we link up for a meeting or just getting simple answers to short but important questions. I have written more about the power of combining Blackberry Messenger and iotum’s Talk Now in my Getting Presence Right post last week. (For communicating with my German hosts who had Sony Ericsson phones I found myself using SMS messaging more than I would in North America but there are charges associated with SMS messages.)
One evening after the show one member of our group had to make a call back to her family in Canada. She had attempted to make a call via one of our host’s wireless GSM phones but the battery died after a few minutes. Since I had packed up my laptop for the day, I checked on my Nokia N80i and found there was an open WiFi connection available. I ran the Truphone wizard, entered her home phone number into the N80i Contacs directory and called via Truphone. She had an excellent quality, uninterrupted call with her family that lasted well over 20 minutes — much better quality than she had been experiencing with a wireless phone. And, at this point in time, at no cost.
Beyond the call quality, another feature I like about Truphone is its integration into the Nokia Contacts directory: select a name and the phone number you want to call — you then have the option to make a Voice (GSM) or Internet (Truphone) call. (Never encountered an opportunity to try out the Video call feature!)
Full circle television is defined as when you are watching Deutsche Welle in Germany or BBC World in London on your laptop but using your home cable box in Canada as your video source. (These services are included in my cable subscription but talk about a bandwidth waster!) My SlingBox Pro came through with marvelous quality video even when full screen on my 1680 x 1050 display. Friday morning I was able to provide some hockey coverage to my hosts at Skype; we were watching my neighbour’s son play in a Minnesota Wild – St Louis Blues game for which I had set up recording on the PVR in my cable box via SlingBox Pro the previous evening. Hockey, with its inherent speed, has to be one of the best tests for the SlingBox quality and it came through with flying colours. Both while in California the previous week and during my European trip I was able to take advantage of my NHL Centre Ice cable TV subscription. The ultimate test is that you are watching a game full screen on the laptop and get into the game to the point where you forget about the technology involved.
s a further test after the CeBit show had closed on Saturday, I hooked up the S-Video output on my laptop into a 42″ LCD TV display used in my host’s booth and connected back to my SlingBox Pro in Canada. Turns out Canadian TV network CBC was broadcasting a curling championship in high definition; had it going live and full screen in the CeBit show’s digital lifestyle booth. I have to admit that it did stretch the quality issue a bit; you probably would not have wanted to watch it for very long on this size of display but it still came up quite clearly with no pixelating in full motion.
Talking about viewing television on laptops, my host, Dick, showed me his way of bringing German (Digital) TV to his laptop. With smply a USB dongle and a short (<20cm) antenna.he is able to pick up all the German channels via German television’s digital technology and a player on the laptop. Can we look forward to such a compact technology in North America when US/Canadian television goes all digital in February, 2009. This concept only works when physically in Germany and complements but by no means replaces the functionality of SlingBox.
As mentioned in a previous post, we used a GPS system in a rental car to locate two excellent, yet inexpensive, restaurants near the Hanover Messe site for our evening meals. I also got to use one in the rental car I had for a day; however, the user interface needs some work for simplicity of operation. It did, however, eventually get me back to the Hanover rail station early one morning. But the associated technology I did appreciate is that Sixt gave me a new BMW Z4 Cabrero when I had ordered a VW Passat – at no extra charge. Unfortunately I did not have enough time to try it on the Autobahn.
Finally my trip from Hannover to London involved three European high speed trains. While the German ICE train was the slowest (maxed out at 160 km/h according to the display screen at the end of each car), it had actually provided the most onboard services: internal display screens telling you about speed, location, upcoming stops, etc; full airline type audio system, food and beverage service at your seat, etc. I took a Thalys TGV train from Cologne to Brussels – while they were still building the high speed road bed between Cologne and Liège, Belgium the ride at 300km/h between Liège and Brussels was something else – smooth, no sway, no clickety-clack, just a Nike swoosh! My final train, Brussels to London, was the Eurostar through the Chunnel to London Waterloo. A most interesting day experiencing advanced European rail technology. One key recommendation for anyone from North America contemplating European rail travel: buy your tickets in advance at the Rail Europe North American sites (US, Canada) and effectively get first class seating at second class pricing. My one disappointment: no WiFi on the trains such as Via Rail provides between Toronto and Ottawa/Montreal.
In fact, talking about WiFi, the one major disappointment on this trip was the unreliability of getting WiFi connections to my PC, to my Dell Axim and to my N80i. Not a case of their availability but rather their connectibility. Some worked, some did not but never in a manner such that I could always count on as a business critical service. Even attempts to use T-Mobile as a commercial service faltered. This standardization and ease-of-connection issues must be resolved if services such as Truphone are to succeed in the business and/or consumer marketplace. When it works, it’s great but…..