Sunday, 5 November 2017

Being progressive rather than universal


Microsoft was not short of ambition for its tiled interface and One Windows strategy. Microsoft was doing what no other tech firm had done - uniting mobile to desktop/laptop PCs in one experience. Apple had two OSs available - IOS for phone/tablet and OSX for its desktop/laptop users. They were different and had different interfaces. Google had two OSs - Android for phone/tablet and ChromeOS for its Chromebook devices.

Of course, even One Windows doesn't mean exactly the same OS but it does mean components have such similarity that the interface appears the same to users and, with little modification, apps can run on all platforms.

Unfortunately, the app platform UWP (Universal Windows Platform) was hobbled from day one. Microsoft had a poor quality application store, ever-changing developer tools and standards and a Store that only worked (on the PC side) for Windows 8 and latterly Windows 10. While people used legacy versions of Windows such as Windows 7 and XP the apps were "invisible". They also kept rebooting WindowsPhone from 7 to 8 then 8.1 and 10. Each iteration became a year zero where developers were faced with re-writes.

UWP also became fragmented. Developer "bridges" allowed convention WIN32 legacy apps to be delivered in a UWP "wrapper" to aid installation. There was also a wrapper so that websites could be delivered as an "app" but were just launching a web connection. UWP became more of a way of distribution via the Store and adding notifications rather than being universal. Microsoft's interest in phone waned as they retreated from successful markets turning them into unsuccessful markets. It literally appeared their ambition was to achieve zero sales in mobile.

You can't have a "universal" platform if your universe consists of just the PC!

Just as Microsoft abandoned mobile devices, affected greatly by the dearth of good apps, PWA arrives.

Progressive Web Apps (PWA) are the force that makes apps unimportant. A PWA is a website that has components that run on a smartphone like an app. For most people they will act like an app. They can be pinned to home screens and may even work offline. Mechanically a PWA has "manifest" of components that make it work online or potentially offline using the web.

There will be some applications like CAD, Photoshop and games that will need to run natively on the device they are coded for. However many phone "apps" can become progressive and can work across any device. Google and Microsoft are onboard with the concept. The next Windows 10 update with Edge will support PWA. The Windows Store will be able to wrap PWA "apps". Maybe even Windows 10 Mobile devices could run PWAs and then have parity of function with Android devices.

There is irony here. Could it be that Google backing for PWA makes Windowsphone viable?

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Mature Mobile


The iPhone X is almost here. We are just days away from the event that comes 10 years after the original iPhone. We have the iPhone 8 on sale and the iPhone doing clever stuff with face recognition.

In the last few days Apple has been forced to deny it has reduced it's high manufacturing standards for facial recognition on the iPhone.

The "revolutionary" aspect of this phone is it unlocks just by looking at it. By unlock I mean that you have to be the owner of the phone!
Underlying this technology is the Israeli company that created the tech behind the Microsoft Kinect sensor. This week saw Microsoft end the production of the Kinect sensor that was, at one point, the fastest selling games peripheral. Apple bought the company that created the technology behind Kinect and had them work on using the idea for facial recognition. However even then Apple are a little late in the game because Microsoft already created "Windows Hello". Windows Hello logs you in just using your face or other biometric on Windows PCs and Phones.


Microsoft was there first. Despite the "death" of Windowsphone devices it's a little bit strange that 2 years after Microsoft had a facial login it's Apple that claims the technology as new.

On the iPhone 8 bulging battery photos have shown that even this phone, largely little changed from it's predecessor, has also been reported as having issues.

Google has also launched the Pixel 2. Made by Google is the slogan. This device has also been hit by some criticism. Screen burn on two-week old devices has hit the press.

The problem with all mobile makers is that the smartphone market is mature. Changes now are incremental not revolutionary. Most manufacturers are now finding it hard to add the killer feature that is sufficiently different from last year's model. You would be hard pushed to find much change from 2 or 3 year old phones!

This years' update season of new devices seems to prove there is not much reason to upgrade devices at all and pay premium prices. The only real reason is fashion. Being seen with the latest device.

The market is now mature. People are keeping their old devices much longer because there are few technical reasons to upgrade.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

The death of Windowsphone


Windowsphone actually “died” a couple of years ago. After Steve Ballmer, the previous CEO of Microsoft, bought Nokia for $7.2 billion you might have assumed that Microsoft was serious about mobile. However Microsoft had little choice. Nokia had made Windowsphone it’s primary operating system and now had 98% of the Windowsphone market. If Nokia’s phone division had just gone bankrupt or made Android handsets then Windowsphone would have ended in 2014.

Nokia had done a pretty good job for Microsoft. Good industrial design, striking colours, double digit market share in places like Europe, South America and Asia where Nokia was a known brand and Microsoft had neglected. Nokia’s handsets had great cameras and additional apps that added value to the device. Nokia had teams of designers and specialists that knew how to make mobile hardware. Microsoft, on the other hand, struggled to sell Windowsphone in their US home market, contantly re-booted the operating system making older handsets incompatible, re-branded services, failed to create a mobile payments system and undermined developers with a poor quality app store and changing developer tools frequently. It seems astonishing that the weaker partner in Windowsphone, in terms of product development and innovation, was Microsoft.

Spending $7.2 billion dollars was not universally popular in the Microsoft board room. The current CEO, Sataya Nadella, in his book Hit Refresh”, says he did not support the decision to buy Nokia. However after becoming CEO he said that Microsoft would continue to support phone, even when the evidence was not showing Microsoft had confidence in their own phone business. In 2015 Microsoft did launch the Lumia 950/950 XL flagship phones on a very iffy Windows 10 Mobile OS. This was the 3rd reboot of the OS itself and reviewers found the speed of the device as great but it showed none of the flare of the Nokia designs and the OS frequently crashed or froze. Developers had not embraced the UWP (Universal Windows Platform) to develop apps and most store apps were compatible with previous generations of Windowsphone.  Microsoft watchers pointed out a shift in language. Microsoft talked about mobile experiences, applications on any device and not just Windowsphone, they wound down their efforts to get developers specifically on board with mobile and Terry Myerson, the chief of the Windows division, said that Microsoft was not “focused” on phone in 2016.


Saturday, 7 October 2017

Simple anti-ransomware tip

The most recent ransomware attacks on PC networks have been amplified by SMB 1.x. SMB is the original file sharing protocol on Windows. It actually came from MS-DOS, the previous operating system from Microsoft, and has a long history. It eventually became called CIFS (Common Internet File System) as a rebrand to dominate internet file sharing in the same way as Windows dominated the PC world.

In the recent ransomware attacks where computers are controlled by malware the old version 1 of SMB has been used to spread the malware over networks. Very few systems, except the odd printer/scanner, use SMB 1 any more. Mostly you see version 2 or version 3 on networks today. So unless you know you need version 1 it’s best to switch it off in the Windows control panel.

If you select switching on/off Windows features you see something like this.

smb-off

Basically you just switch off SMB 1 by unticking the box. Probably a good thing to do on all your PCs to make them a little safer.

For more detailed information click here.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Star Trek Times



Computer calculate the value of PI to the last possible digit. I paraphrase slightly but with these words Mr Spock instructed the Enterprise computer to prioritise the calculation of PI. It was a plot point to rid the computer of an alien. Maybe the 24th Century version of malware. In the 1970s viewers of the re-runs of Star Trek in the UK were treated to a vision of the 24th century. In the 24th century you could communicate via a small handheld device, you could view the world through flat wall mounted screens and you could command your computer via voice making keyboard input a
aberration from the 20th century.

We didn’t have to wait for the 24th century after all. Today the mobile phone provides global communication from your hand, TVs can hang on the wall and now the new technology battle is voice based digital assistants.

Currently the field of digital assistants seems to be;
Siri.  Apple’s iphone based digital helper.
Cortana. Microsoft’s largely PC based digital assistant with a name based on a character from the Halo game series.
Google Assistant. Google’s home and mobile based assistant.
Alexa. Amazon’s smart assistant for the home.
Bixby. Samsung’s smart assistant. Currently available only on the Galaxy S8

This market in AI is nascent. All of the digital assistants use cloud technology to discover information and provide functionality. Apple’s Siri was first introduced in the iphone 4S and provided a way of access to the iphone via voice commands. Next came Microsoft’s Cortana. Cortana was first available via Windowsphone and is now available on the PC and, in some countries, as an Android app. Google Assistant as evolved from Google Now. Google hasn’t gotten a real personal name for the assistant but kicks off with “OK Google” . Alexa, also known as the Amazon Echo, is a surprise because Amazon is associated more with shopping and has no mobile platform at all. However Amazon’s prime services such as music link in nicely to its capabilities. Bixby is Samsung’s attempt to unbundle itself from Google services. Each entrant has it’s own strengths but all are trying to lock you into their service ecosystem.

So if you primarily use Google services then the Google Assistant should be your number one choice. Productivity workers primarily using a PC and Windows 10 should probably be in the Cortana camp. Apple users will find Siri most useful. Leading to the conclusion that we are heading into walled gardens of service specific assistants. What users really want is universal access to personalised services everywhere. Cortana users will see that the failure of Windowsphone and lack of a home speaker system means it is useful primarily on the PC. Google users will find the PC lacks the assistant natively. Iphone users who use a PC will find no connection at all.

The solution appears to be “skills”. These are the software extensions to home assistants that add capability. An Amazon Alexa user with a Spotify subscription can add Spotify as a skill via the app or web browser. Now if you ask Alexa to play music it knows you mean Spotify and not Amazon. Alexa now has thousands of skills. This week Amazon and Microsoft announced that Amazon devices were going to get Cortana skills. For a Microsoft user like me this means I can use an Amazon device and call up my calendar or information from the Microsoft ecosystem with the same ease as Amazon itself.

echo
Right now I have an Android phone that is setup to use Cortana. I have a PC using Cortana. I have a new Amazon echo box using Alexa but shortly to have Cortana skills. We are moving to the world of the universal voice assistant and Star Trek. The only disappointment I have is that Majel Barratt Roddenberry, who provided the voice of the USS Enterprise computer, has passed away and  can’t voice my digital assistant and make me feel it’s the 24th century.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

A steak bake and a coffee with Bitcoin

Greggs is a north east institution. From a small bakery in Newcastle in the 1930s and delivery via bicycle it is now all over Britain. Coffee, sandwiches and the famous stottie cake.

Greggs history has been about adapting to change and you can now get a Greggs app for your smart phone to pay in-store and collect some rewards.

What about going really out on the edge and buying Greggs with Bitcoin. A few years back I picked up a few Satoshi* just to see how Bitcoin worked. For me it was a computer science experiment rather than a serious financial transaction.

*What is a Satoshi?
Each bitcoin (BTC) is divisible to the 8th decimal place, so each BTC can be split into 100,000,000 units. Each unit of bitcoin, or 0.00000001 bitcoin, is called a satoshi. A Satoshi is the smallest unit of Bitcoin.
You can see (above) just how small a Satoshi is and my lack of an actual single Bitcoin puts me at the bottom of the Bitcoin millionaire scale. However if I read the casual comments of the Internet it seems that Bitcoin users only want Bitcoin to buy drugs. I suspect cash is much easier for that task but let me play along with the myth.

I wanted to know if I could buy a Greggs steak bake and a coffee with Bitcoin. Surprisingly it turns out you can!

I found Giftoff - a website you can exchange Bitcoin for gift cards. With your gift card you can buy a steak bake and coffee.





So I bought a Greggs gift card. What you get is a code that is basically the same as the Greggs app generates. When you want to pay just ask the cashier to tap in the code as if it's on the app and you get your steak bake.

Now with the rising price of Bitcoin it looks like lunch is now paid for a few weeks.

Having said this the activity is pretty pointless for normal people because money works just as well. However as a bit of fun with digital cash the temptation to try and buy at Greggs was a challenge I had to try.


Saturday, 5 August 2017

The Curse of Amazon Prime

Capture2


Amazon is great. I have been shopping with them since 1998 when you could only buy books and CDs. Today you can buy almost anything.


Over time the idea of delivery has changed. Amazon is online so they also deliver services online. Movies, TV, music and probably a few other things I haven’t spotted. However I just buy stuff occasionally. It does bother me that Amazon is the creator of zero hours contract low wage jobs but its really hard to avoid the low wage low cost economy.

Amazon have been doing Amazon Prime for a while now. If you are not a regular user of Amazon you may not be aware of this premium service where you can get free delivery, next day delivery, movies, tv and music for a yearly fee of about £79. They also throw in some exclusive offers, discount days and almost anything that gets customers into the store. I have no problem with this subscription model and that it has made Amazon founder Jeff Bezos a load of money. Briefly, as the Amazon share price went up on 27th July 2017, he became the world’s richest man. So business is good.

Many people find the Amazon Prime service great value and love all the bundled offers. I don’t. I like Netflix, Spotify and mixing up my online purchases. What I don’t like is being cursed by Amazon Prime. Most times I just want to buy something, get it delivered with free postage and I don’t care if it takes 5 working days to get to me. I don’t even care if I have to collect it next week from a locker or some other place. Prime now haunts me during the buying process. Without huge care you click the button for your free 30 day trial. By which they mean we hope you forget and we swipe money out of your credit card every month 30 days from now.

The curse is that we have been seduced by one click shopping. The continue button always just completes the purchase – right? Nothing sinister there?

Not on Amazon. Those large buttons in the final page offering free next day delivery are really now a passive sign up to Amazon Prime. I now have to double and triple check every option before buying anything just in case I get signed up for Prime, or drone delivery, or maybe (at some future stage) rocket launched orbital delivery. After all Bezos seems to want to go to Mars!

A few days ago they caught me again. It’s been a couple of years since I last unwittingly signed up for one month of  Prime trial. Then it’s happened again. I have one month of free Amazon Prime again!  I immediately switch it off because I don’t want to forget and then have them raid my account in 30 days. Switching it off involves going to a buried menu in “Your Account – Manage Prime Benefits”. They don’t just have an off button to undo the very big “Continue” button that signs you into the service you don’t want.

With all big successful companies there is a moment when they think they are so wonderful you will want to send them money all the time. Amazon has reached that stage. I call it the curse of Amazon Prime.