Tip o’ the Week #258 – The Network of Your Stuff

As buzzwords go, 2014 has been a big year for the “Internet of Things”, or IoT. A term coined 15 years ago by a specialist in RFID, it was later refined in a paper as referring to a world where machines can share information (perhaps about themselves) with each other, to better manage the environment we live in. Let’s hope the sharing and acting doesn’t become too autonomous. Who knows where that would all lead?

The IoT industry (such as it is) comprises largely of companies making gadgets (sensors, controllers, chips that could be embedded into other devices etc), companies selling means of connectivity (like 3G or short-range wireless) and companies selling software solutions to either manage the whole shebang or to do something with the inevitable mass of data that results from it.

Analysts breathlessly predict gargantuan volumes of data (Zettabytes, man!), billions of things, worth trillions of dollars. And everyone’s trying to be seen to be taking part, and to brand the whole area with their take on it (Cisco keeps gamely plugging away, talking up “IoE” or Internet of Everything, Microsoft came out with the Internet of Your Things, though that term may have been put to bed…). There was even a recent event called the Internet of Good Things. Nothing to do with FYC.

Make it real, take it home

While we wait for IoT to realign the stars (or did you see the ISS on Christmas Eve?- #ItsSantasSleigh), we could start with a bit of home automation that is arguably bleeding into IoT, and it’s not ridiculously expensive. Here’s just one example of a fairly simple system, though no doubt readers will email in with recommendations of their fave gadgets. The reason for choosing the kit that follows was largely that this stuff has a reputation for being either expensive or unreliable, or both, and these choices are relatively cheap and cheerful. And won’t be a cause for an argument over Christmas if and when they stop working…

clip_image001First, you need a box

In order to do anything truly IoT-like, you’re going to need a box (a hub, if you will) that will talk to your things and then corral their data onto the internet. Your average smart sensor isn’t going to have the compute power or connectivity to talk TCP/IP to an internet endpoint, and if it does, that’s why it’ll be 3 times the price of every other one: just look at Belkin’s WeMo. No, what you need is something like Swedish company Telldus’ “TellStick Net”: £70 from your favourite Danish IKEA-like electrical store. Oh, sadly, it appears Tellstick isn’t officially available in the US. Too bad. Maybe it’s karma for all the apps and deals that are US-only…

The Tellstick Net talks to devices which use the ISM band at 433Mhz to communicate with each other; it’s a relatively short-range but low-power radio, and it’s pretty cheap. You may have devices which use this band already (wireless doorbells and the like) though you might not be able to automate much of what they do.

clip_image002It’s cold outside

One useful thing you could do with your new box, is rig the house and garden up with temperature and humidity sensors – indoors is probably OK, but if you have a garage or a loft, you might want to know that it’s not getting too cold or too damp. And it’s very handy to know exactly how cold it is outdoors, too. A multitude of different sensors are available that talk to the Tellstick box, such as this one (£10).

As a programming task (after you’ve done your Hour of Code, of course), you could rig up some software to keep a log of temperature in your area over time, and maybe cross reference it with a feed of weather forecasts. Here’s a starter for ten. Or just set up tellmon.net to do the logging for you.


clip_image004Remote Power

Do you have any devices where the power socket is out of reach? Like Christmas Tree lights (plug behind the tree?), or exterior lights that run from the garage? Well here’s a simple solution that can also be controlled by the Tellstick – you can switch them on and off discretely, see the current status and even schedule them to come on and off at set times.

clip_image005As with temperature sensors, there are loads of power switches which are compatiblelike these (£15), which even come with a button-operated remote so you can switch them on and off without resorting to using a computing device.

The principal means of setting up Telldus Live (the cloud service which underpins the Tellstick Net device) is through your browser (try it out with username demo@telldus.com and demodemo as password), or you can use their free app for Android or iOS devices.

clip_image007There is a 3rd party app called SmartHome for Windows Phone and Windows 8, which is nicer and more featured, but does require you shelling out a quid.

The observant will spot that the Fence sensor >> reckons it’s 71 degC outside… clearly a faulty device…

Other systems are available

Of course, there are hundreds of other means to doing home automation – there are proprietary, generally reliable (but expensive) things like Crestron or Control4, that could generally mean retrofitting a good bit of kit to your house, but may also do audio and video distribution, lighting control etc.

There are systems to do lights, like Philips’ Hue (great if you want to spend £50 on a light bulb), heating controllers like the Googly NEST or BG’s Hive, to other more entry-level systems like LightwaveRF, which is more expensive than the simple 433Mhz varieties, though offers more capability and is more attainable if you want to get into things gradually, when compared to the more professional type installations.

With Telldus Live, you could have the base system, 5 temperature sensors and 6 power devices all up and running for £150. Not cheap, but in the world of gadgets, that’s not too shabby.

Tip o’ the Week #256 – Clip Art clips off


Exactly 5 years after publishing the very first instalment (though it was internal only for a year before I started posting the tips on this blog), clip_image003Tip o’ the Week goes Old Skool: #256, or 28, the number of combinations possible from a single byte. If you want to join the retro-fun, Sir Clive is backing a new crowd-funded Speccy games console. Sinclair was a hero of the 1980s’ UK 8-bit computer market, before having to sell out to the-then un-betitled upstart Alan Sugar.

Time moves on. The oft-mocked and much-maligned Clippy died, aged 10. Not enough people wanted to write letters any more, it seems.

Other things change, too – the very idea of Clip Art within Office apps, for one. Word 6 from the early 1990s had a handful of clip art images, but later versions of Office had full libraries of pictures and vector-image clip art. But Clip Art is going the way of the dodo…


clip_image007Microsoft announced recently that the Clip Art collection was being closed down, to be replaced by Bing Image searches.

To insert Bing images into Word docs or Outlook emails, just go to the Insert tab and look under Online Pictures.


The Bing Image Search option shows pictures which are available for free use, licensed through an arrangement called  Creative Commons – so you should be able to use them without charge, though do bear in mind that the license to re-use may have specific conditions – select the desired image  and click on the link for more details.


So, let’s raise our hats to Clip Art – even if it’s sometimes pretty naff, with images that are out of date and a bit cheesy.

If you don’t like the Bing Image options, you can always select Pictures from your own PC, or add your own collections to the “Online Pictures” list  – from online accounts such as OneDrive, Flickr or Facebook.

Tip o’ the Week #255 – Rating apps in the store

The Store was a key innovation when Windows 8 launched, and continues to grow, both in terms of the number of apps published and the way popular and well-rated apps are surfaced. Earlier this year, Microsoft said there were over 150,000 apps in the Windows 8 store, though now the total reported is combined between the Windows 8 and Windows Phone stores. It’s said that Windows 10 will join the two stores together anyway, a process that’s underway already through the move to Universal Apps.

According to Microsoft By The Numbers, a neat external website that helps to show how large some bits of the company are (did you know that together, the Office for iPad apps have been downloaded 45 million times? Or that 40% of Azure revenue comes from startups and ISVs?), the total number of apps across both stores is 525,000. That’s rather a lot. Finding the good apps from the guff ones can be a challenge.

So, it’s more important than ever to make sure when you use an app you like, or one you don’t, that you rate it. Ratings and reviews will help other people choose your preferred app over some other one which isn’t as good, or has more annoying adverts, or nags you to buy the premium version all the time. In Windows 8.1, there are a few tricks to rating the apps you’ve used, and of sharing your favourite apps with others.

clip_image002Rate and review

As well as rating Windows 8 apps you use regularly, why not review those you feel work particularly well or particularly badly? Maybe the developer will read your review and improve or fix things that don’t work, or maybe people who are browsing will read your rave review and decide that’s the app for them.

Apps for Windows 8 let you Rate and review if you open the Charms menu (when you’re in the app, press WindowsKey+C or swipe from the right, or move your mouse to the top right or bottom right of the screen), then look under Settings.

clip_image004Taking this option fires up the Store app, and navigates directly to the review section where you can assign a 1-5 star rating and give some verbiage should you desire. If you’re going to slate an app that everyone else rates highly, or the opposite, then you really should explain why, so others can benefit from your wisdom or simply write your thoughts off as coming from a blithering idiot.

How many Amazon reviews have you read, that score a product 1 star because it took ages to arrive or the box was damaged on receipt? The case rests.

clip_image006If you want to rate apps without actually opening them, you can go into the Store app, select Account | My apps from the menu at the top, then select the appropriate filter from the drop-down boxes, then click or tap on each item to get to its Store page, which includes rating & reviews.

Sensibly, you can’t actually rate apps that you’ve never installed, but you can rate and review apps that you have only on another PC.

Sadly, there’s no way of showing your own ratings in a list – it would be handy to be able to see all the apps you’ve installed and how you rated each one – maybe there’s an app for that, or someone else will write it to share a way of doing so…

clip_image008Windows Phone ratings

Apps on Phone don’t have the same consistent mechanism to expose the ratings and review section of the Store (since they don’t have charms), though many apps will prompt you after a while of usage, to ask if you’d like to rate them.

From a PC, you can head over to the Windows Phone site and look at your purchase history, then rate from within there.

On the phone, visit the Store app to rate and review other apps you’ve used (again, you need to have actually installed them to be able to rate), and you’ll see on the same reviews tab that you can also Share the app, which sends a link via mail or numerous other messaging or social networking means.


Sharing on Windows 8.1clip_image009

Returning to Windows 8.1, if you want to share your favourite apps with friends, just go back into the Charms menu and you’ll see Share proudly offered – though its use will vary depending on what you’re doing with the app itself. If listening to Music (US only, sadly), you’ll share a link to whatever you’re playing. If you’re reading the News, selecting Share will send the headline and a link to the article you’re on.

To Share apps, follow the same steps as earlier to list your installed apps from within the Store, then open the details page for the app in question, but instead of rating or reviewing it, invoke the Share charm when at the same page.

If you don’t want to email links etc using the Mail client, perhaps preferring to embed the links into rambling missives from within Outlook, then check out the neat Clipboard app, which (using a “contract”) lets you Share something straight into the Windows Clipboard, ready to be pasted into another app of your choice.