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Business Reply Mail - By SMS Text!

Junk mail. We all get it, we all chuck it. But every now and there, there's something we reply to. C'mon, admit it. You've returned one of the envelopes, tear-off cards or or stuffers at some time. As a marketer, these little scraps of paper can be gold - a way to get contact info back from a perspective customer. Magazine tear-outs, utility bills and weekly circulars all have alive-and-well business reply models working every day. Why is something so decidedly low tech still viable? Familiarity, I think. We know this to be an effective, if not slow, means of expressing interest in an offering. What modern medium might a marketer combine with this approach?

How about SMS Text?

The more common means of interaction between individuals and increasingly with companies is SMS Text. People are comfortable with it, and it's just as familiar as the little scraps of paper. Add a line in an existing campaign that says something like 'return the card below, or text OFFER12 to 55453'. Now you have instant access to a new customer. You can start an interaction that asks the customer's name, when best to contact them, offer web links to products and purchase portals. It's that little card on steroids!

Streamwrite has a comprehensive suite of customer interaction and notification systems that leverage SMS Text, email, conferencing, call routing and outbound calling. 

Check us out, and we promise not to send you any sea monkeys!

Hackers

Hacker. The word prompts images of energy-drink guzzling teens breaking into databases and stealing personal information. But that's really not right.

A real hacker, in the tradition of Woz, Captain Crunch and other OG hackers wasn't at all about stealing. It was about solving a puzzle, playing a prank, showing your smarts.

Hacking really didn't start out with computers. During the 70s and early 80s, it was pretty hard to get a hold of the necessary hardware to do computer hacking (a teletype, a modem, $1000 of 70s dollars). Early hackers were 'Phone Phreaks', folks that used home-brewed gadgets like 'Blue Boxes' to create MF tones. These tones could be used to re-direct a call intended for a toll free service, to any number in the world with no charge. Hackers would do funny things like create a phone call that circled the globe on analog trunks, and marvel at the 10 second propagation delay when the spoke in one phone and listened on the other. As services like compuserve, AOL and TYMNET gave way to the Internet, these same clever souls refocused their  antics on systems they could access with microcomputers. The modern hacker was born.

The truly remarkable hacks, or 'Pranks' usually spawned from academic institutions, and more often than not, CalTech and MIT. A playful rivalry between these tech giants had gone on for decades. One in particular, is my favorite -- because of it's complexity, playfulness, and attack on college football, which in my opinion, takes itself way to seriously. 

The 1984 Rose Bowl took place on a warm and sunny January 2nd, between The UCLA Bruins and the University of Illinois Fighting Illini. Little did the fans, Tournament officials or Rose Bowl staff know that months before, a small team of CalTech students had made several unauthorized visits to the Bowl grounds. First, they gained access to the pressbox, and 'borrowed' manuals on the PDP-8 computer and the scoreboard software that controlled the huge electronic scoreboard above the stadium. Using those manuals, they reverse engineered the serial interface that was transmitted from the PDP-8 to the scoreboard. Later, they engineered hardware that could be tapped into the serial connection, and inject messages to the scoreboard. 

Like Ninjas, the team went back on night, and using rock-climbing skills they accessed a junction box under the pressbox where the serial cables connected. They installed a hand-modified microcomputer (think mid-80s) with a serial interface connected to the line. They used a walkie-talkie acting as a modem connection, allowing them to control the clandestine microcomputer from a nearby hill. 

Back on game day, during the 4th quarter the team sent some packets down their radio interface that changed the team names from UCLA and Illinois to CALTECH and MIT. They left other important game stats unchanged, like the score, but made sure that UCLA score of 38 was assigned to CALTECH, while Illinois' paltry 9 points was assigned to MIT. 

The tournament officials were outraged, and leveraged the Pasadena police and the City Prosecutor to press misdemeanor charges against two of the Caltech students, Ted Williams and Dan Kegel. There was outrage in the press and with the public, which loved the prank and were solidly behind Caltech.  This ended up with the students pleading "nolo contendre'', and serving probation and with no entries into their records. 

What I love about this story is the sheer audacity of attempting something like this. It reminds me of the brilliant hardware and software engineers I've had the pleasure of working with throughout my career. 

I feel so lucky to be working at a company filled with engineers who think like Williams and Kegel. 

Prank on!

 

 

Zigbee, Z-Wave, Home Automation

It sounds so familiar.

 

Beta vs. VHS. MS-DOS vs. CPM-86. Blu-Ray vs. HDDVD.

 Another technology battle looms over us lowly end-users, and it feels like 1986 all over again. This time it’s all about home automation – that technology that allows us to turn on and off lights, appliances, home theatre and the like through our smartphone, Amazon Echo, Google home and others. Just like those early computer operating systems of the 80s, early, older standards (like X10), that connect home automation devices, have given way to two frontrunners – Zigbee and Z-wave.  

 Ok, so if you haven’t gone down this rabbit hole yet, you’re probably asking “why not just have home automation devices connect directly to Wi-Fi, and bypass having a second network like Zigbee of Z-wave”. Well, there are devices that connect in just that manner – and if you’re buying lots of them, they’re expensive – Z-wave and Zigbee offer a much cheaper radio interface compared to Wi-Fi. Also, imagine how many devices you’d have on you Wi-Fi network if you enabled every candidate device in your home? It might be over one hundred devices, clogging you router’s DHCP table – not to mention how many devices would have your Wi-Fi credentials.

 Now then, we’ve established that we want to have a separate network that sends simple commands to our lightbulbs, switches, doorbells, alarms and garage door openers. So how do they connect? Well, each system (Zigbee or Z-wave) will require some kind of ‘hub’ that connects on one side to your Wi-Fi or wired network, and on the other side to all the HA devices. You see where I’m going here?

 

So let’s look at the different kinds of HA environments:

 

X10

The granddaddy of all HA protocols is X10. Established way back in 1975, X10 used the actual AC power mains as a medium for control message transfer. That’s right – it sent the message between power outlets. This was pretty cool back in the disco era, but it was subject to the noise and interference that power mains often harbor. Missed ‘off’s’ and ‘on’s’ are common on X10, and interference can even cause false events. X10 is still around – it’s really cheap and very widely used in Europe, but it’s in decline.

 

Z-wave

Z-wave was first introduced back in 1999, and connects devices via radio signals in the 900mhz band. It uses “Mesh Networking”, and each device can optionally act as a repeater for other devices, as well and dedicated repeaters. A Z-wave bridge is required to connect the signals to the IP network (and consequently mobile devices). These devices are sometimes referred to as ‘smart hubs’, and may contain intelligence and scripts to group devices and provide an easy to use interface. Until late, more devices supported Z-wave than Zigbee, but Z-wave SOC chips are only produced by one company, Silicon Labs, and there are fears that they will control the market and keep prices high if Z-wave becomes the accepted standard. The advantage is that Silicon Labs have standards and rules that require every Z-Wave hub to work seamlessly with every Z-wave device. The Z-wave alliance is headed up by several large alarm companies, industrial automation firms and telecom conglomerates.  

Zigbee

The Zigbee specification was set back in 2004 for a low-cost, low-speed ad-hoc network to control home automation, medical devices and industrial devices using the 2.4Ghz radio band. It is an open standard run by the Zigbee Alliance. Many chip-fabs make Zigbee radio chips based on the standard, and no single company has control over the market (like Z-wave). But, it’s open-source, so there’s also no one officially making sure things work together. Amazon recently acquired a seat on the Zigbee alliance board, and this could influence the fight based on Amazon’s Echo (Which directly supports Zigbee radio).

 

So choosing a HA protocol feels like choosing a side - once again (remember deciding if you wanted a DOS computer or an Apple ][? (I guess I’m showing my age). Or blu-ray vs. HDDVD. The price of bad decision is a bunch of possibly obsolete stuff in the near future.

 

I chose Z-wave, based on the number of available devices that I wanted. My buddy Mark choose Zigbee, since he’s a developer and liked the open nature and generally cheaper devices. We both used little USB thumb-like dongles as radio bridges (Mark’s is plugged into a PC, mine is plugged into a Raspberry Pi running an open-source hub called OpenHab). We’ve both made significant investments in HA devices (switches, lights, etc). Who will prevail in the end? Well, your guess is as good as mine, though the recent Amazon development points to Mark making the right choice with Zigbee.

 

So what’s the bigger picture here? Well, imagine every light in an organization being on automation. Florescent tubes replaced with multi-color LED tubes that are normally white and indistinguishable from their predecessor, but can change color at will. Maybe cascading light fixtures that go red to guide students to safe areas in school emergencies; lights that can emit soothing colors during dental procedures and surgery prep; lights that can change in hue night to day to help night workers.

 

Streamwrite has begun R&D into adding automation control to portals – allowing the control of this new technology in the same intuitive and easy to use environment that our customer have come to love.

 

So, whoever wins the fight – Zigbee, Z-wave or something else, Streamwrite will have a hat in the automation ring!

VCourt: Now Officially a Mark

A Trademark ....

The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) defines a trademark as a brand name that includes any name, word, symbol or device that is used to identify the goods and services of a business entity. A trademark (or service mark) denotes the source of the goods and/or services. Examples of trademark logos:

Trademark Logo Trademark Logo

VCourt is now recognized by the USPTO as a valid trademark belonging to streamWrite, llc. VCourt is streamWrite's telephonic / video appearance system in use today in several court systems, helping them efficiently offer remote court appearances to the public. More info on VCourt is available here.

VCourt Logo