Sun, 21 Jun 2009

Broadband-Enabled Airplanes

If you're moderately interested in technology and travel by air, you've probably heard news of in-flight broadband access.

Rather than being yet another amenity for the business traveler to stay productive or for people to keep in touch or to keep entertained on long flights, in-air broadband is something the FAA should consider making standard on all new aircraft.

No, I don't think the FAA has a vested interest in making sure that the tween in seat 16C can download the latest single from Hannah Montana in-flight. Rather, I think the airline industry, as well as the regulatory body overseeing it, should make in-flight broadband a requirement for safety and maintenance reasons.

From the maintenance perspective, airplanes either should already be (or if not, could be required to be) equipped with on-board diagnostics. This is something the car in your garage or driveway already has. Called ODBII (On-Board Diagnostics 2) your car's engine can diagnose and warn about several kinds of problems that your car might encounter from the air/fuel mix, to the ignition and exhaust. If you've ever seen a "Check Engine Light", you know what I'm talking about.

Now, clearly, airplanes could "store" these codes, much like your car does. And much like you can take your car into the dealership to have the codes pulled to identify what the maintenance issue is, airplanes can be checked at the terminal for their operational status.

Or, alternatively, these codes could be beamed, in-flight, to a central maintenance facility who can dispatch the proper parts and mechanics to meet the plane at the most optimal location in its itinerary.

My personal philosophy when it comes to maintaining my own vehicle is to address each issue as soon as it comes up, when the cost of addressing it is minimal. Issues ignored typically equals issues magnified and made more expensive in my world view. If this belief holds true in the real world, then real ROI can be shown here by airlines voluntarily including broadband and using that pipe to stream such diagnostic signals.

Consider if there were tire pressure monitoring systems, like in modern luxury vehicles, that could alert about lower tire pressures, in-flight. Forget the sensational scenario of averting a safety danger (although this, too, could be a benefit), but just consider the alternative of having a flight land and return to the terminal. The post-flight check, or possibly the pre-flight check of the next flight might detect the low tire pressure on the aircraft. Meanwhile you're boarding 200+ people on the plane, and the plane needs to reach its next destination with little room for error to not cascade delays everywhere on its itinerary.

Clearly, having advance notice of the problem means that you can have the air pump or tire replacement equipment ready at the gate when the plane lands. True, if the airplane is so instrumented, the pilot can alert the ground crew too when the light switches on in the cockpit, but why add the human element in the middle who might be busy with other details?

The other aspect of my argument is illustrated by Air France 447. The diagnostic stream of data is useful in maintenance, but the FAA could really benefit from live streams of black box flight data streamed in-flight. Rather than having to hunt for the black box, what if all the black box data was already available? In situations where the black box may not be able to be recovered (reports put the 447 flight recorder as deep as 13K feet), or if the data on it is damaged, voice and telematics data could be encoded, compressed and transmitted to ground-based stations that can provide either up-to-the-minute data of what was going on in the aircraft.

Depending on the speed of the in-flight broadband, this data stream could obviate the need to find the black box entirely, or at least begin to offer investigators some early data to help rule out various scenarios which might aid in either finding survivors, victims, or wreckage, not to mention answers as to what happened to prevent similar problems on similar aircraft flying hundreds of thousands of miles each day.

The question then becomes, if the FAA and airlines are constantly streaming that much data from the aircraft, how much would be left for passengers? On its face, that's a bit of a silly question... safety and cost savings would seem to have greater value than a few folks squeezing some productivity out of a flight, but I would suspect that there would be sufficient bandwidth if the FAA's requirements for black box data was of MP3 audio quality for cockpit recordings and time-limited telematics (i.e. ten data points per second as opposed to 1 data point per ms, for example). Given that it would seem to be a quantum leap in benefit beyond the basic data that is currently sent via radio, even these modest improvements, I suspect, would offer substantial benefits.

Sat, 20 Jun 2009

A Fun Thought Experiment

At a recent conference I attended, a session touched on intercultural communication issues (with offshore engineering teams). To illustrate the point, the speaker remarked "consider explaining how baseball or football works to someone new to the game".

In +-60 words or so (assume 1 word per second for a one minute explanation), try to explain each one. Here are my first tries:

Football: Teams score points by taking the ball into the team's "end zone". Seven points are scored for running or catching the ball therein, three by kicking through the goal, and two by forcing a team to end their play in their own zone. Each team has four attempts to take the ball 10 yards. Failure gives the ball to the opponent.

Baseball: Points are scored by completing circuits around the field. Batters can advance when the ball is put into play. A batter's turn ends when he reaches base, or is counted "out". Outs occur when failing to swing and hit the ball, or not swinging at a hittable ball three times, and when failing to reach a base before the offense can tag the runner or prevent them from taking the base. Four poor throws allows batters to advance. A team gets three "outs" per inning, and nine innings per game so long as there is no tie.

How well can you do? Clearly baseball is more difficult.

Windows 7 72-349% More Expensive than OS X Snow Leopard

From the "Lies, damn lies, and statistics" department...

According to Apple, to upgrade to Snow Leopard (OS X 10.6) from Leopard (OS X 10.5) will be just $29 in September. It will run on every Mac shipped in the last three years.

Meanwhile, to upgrade to Windows 7 Home Premium will set you back $50 while Windows 7 Professional will be $100. Oh, and don't forget to download Microsoft's "Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor" from their website to see if you need to buy a brand new PC to run it on.

I wonder if any of the laptops purchased in the "Laptop Hunters" ads can run Windows 7 or not...

Wed, 03 Jun 2009

It's Time to Move On, Microsoft

I don't get why Microsoft feels like it needs to compare PCs to Macs in their laptop hunter ads. Pitting the PC against the Mac doesn't do Microsoft any favors. First, any such comparison is basically going to come down to price. And for a company whose latest "Ultimate" product retails for $219.95 for an upgrade, the implication is, after you buy this laptop the next upgrade to Windows is going to cost you $$$. (A new copy of OS X costs $129. And a family pack-- 5 computers in the same household-- is just $199)

My Flat Panel iMac, which doubles as my home server, introduced by Apple over 7 years ago, is capable of running OS X 10.5 (Leopard) just as fast and as well as the OS that shipped with it: OS X 10.1.2 (That's right, four major versions ago).

When you set the expectation that cheap hardware is abundant, are people really going to feel like the OS upgrade is worth $200+? So does MS expect you not to upgrade the OS, and to just buy a new PC with each OS release?

So what was that about the Apple tax, again?

But this distracts from the broader point. If Microsoft is making $200-300 per copy of Vista Ultimate, why aren't they content to make the same amount with Microsoft Office for Mac? (yes, retail pricing for Office for Mac is in that ballpark)

Wither the Office for Mac ads that say "With Office for Mac, Microsoft brings the best of breed Office product to the Macintosh. So you no longer have to feel like a second class citizen on your preferred platform"?

And it's not just the Mac that Microsoft needs to rethink. They should consider if Microsoft Office for Linux can be profitable. And for that matter, IIS, Access and SQL Server for Mac and Linux too. Top it off with C# and the other developer tools. Why allow Linux and Mac developers to live in a completely different ecosystem? Why not enable them to use the tools and software they need to build software for any platform, using their tools?

Now some people will call me crazy, stating that Linux needs IIS like a fish needs a bicycle. The point is that that by focusing on trying to capture 95+% of the desktop market for Windows, that they are ignoring the fact that they already have a dominant position for Office products on the Mac, and if the execs at Microsoft are concerned about Linux (considering the FUD they've been spreading, they are) the strategy to make money on Linux is to embrace it, not to ignore it.

If I were at the helm of Microsoft, I'd insist on running it as if the antitrust suit to break it apart had succeeded. Let each division make the decisions about the marketplace that are in their best interests, and don't let one division (Windows with their laptop ads) snipe at the other (Mac BU, authors of Office for Mac).

Name/Blog: Tim
Title: Check out the Mono project for C# on Linux / Mac
Comment/Excerpt: You can do quite a bit of the .NET stuff on Linux (and Mac, though that is newer) with Mono.


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