- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The rapid-fire events of the past two weeks, first in Tunisia, then in Egypt, next in — where? — give some indication of the need to stay in touch via technology.

As I write, Google has announced a way for people in Egypt to send Twitter messages without a direct connection to the microblogging site, using voicemail and transcription. The turning on and off of mobile phone service in Egypt is another sign of the importance of technological communications in getting the straight story from the streets to a global audience.

This kind of convergence, of news flowing through new technology to a distant audience, is perhaps as old as Samuel F.B. Morse, whose invention of the telegraph changed the reporting of the Civil War some 150 years ago. Since then, it seems, whenever a new technology arrives, it’s used to help convey current events to a waiting world.

Just as important is the consuming end of things: If someone is producing content and you can’t access it, that content isn’t of much use. Both the BBC’s World Service and al Jazeera English relied heavily on the Internet to reach American audiences, even if the former airs on many cable networks and some local over-the-air stations. Al Jazeera’s English service is carried on a digital over-the-air channel in Northern Virginia, but the Internet appears to have been its largest distribution method so far.

It’s also a safe bet that Twitter-following software brought news to lots of people as well as a constant refreshing of Web pages for major news outlets. The difference this time is that there are so many mobile devices on which to receive the news: iPads and a few other tablet computers, and smart phones of various types. Want the latest from Cairo? Well, there really is an app for that — several, in fact.

My own quest to keep on top of things led me to keep trying with the two computers and built-in (or attached) video tuners. The over-the-air al Jazeera English programming came in fine via the Elgato Eye TV device described here last week. The Acer Z5700 desktop computer also was tested, again, with less success. I’ve tried two different commercial antennas; nothing’s really outpulled a $10 set of rabbit ears, although another manufacturer is going to try.

This begs a question, of course, one of several: The same “pipe” that brings high-speed Internet to my computer also brings digital-quality television to the family room. And while I could hook up a cable box to the computer-TV tuner combo (and have), it seems an unnecessary encumbrance. Why can’t I get it all, on one cable, into one device? I’m paying enough for it, I’d say, and a modest $10 or so per month extra (i.e., the “rent” of one of those cable boxes) should cover things.

Another part of the equation is controlling all the various input sources. Toward that end, a Santa Clara, Calif., outfit called Peel will soon bring out a universal remote control that runs on an Apple IPod Touch or iPhone and soon on Android-based smart phones and iPads.

The idea is that the device will “learn” your various home-viewing hardware, content and tastes and serve up content — an episode of “Jersey Shore,” say — instead of “Channel 440, 8 p.m.” and so forth. A few swipes of the finger or taps on the screen, and you’re watching your broadcast or cable program, controlling a videodisc player or tuning in on an Apple TV or Roku device.

At a recent Capitol Hill demo, Peel President Bala Krishnan said the device also would control all those Internet applications built into my Samsung TV. Information on the product is available at www.peel.com.

The Peel system works though a combination of Wi-Fi and infrared control frequencies, and it will be interesting to see if it works. If it does, and if I can get a handle on all that content, perhaps life will be better!

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