Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Gmail Getting Google Now Built In

Google released details of its next major revision to the Gmail clients on Android, Chrome and iOS today - Inbox. This looks like a tool that takes the best of Google Now and applies it to your inbox. That means more intelligent grouping of email and Google Now like features for surfacing key information when you might need it.

It will be interesting to see how much Google is able to automate email. For example right now I use a combination of IFTTT and Evernote to provide some intelligence to my inbox, so I'll be delighted if Google can bring features from Google Now to Gmail and make that automation a single source task.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Apple Planning On Entering Bargain Basement With Beats

If the jungle drums are to believed, Apple is about to go bargain basement with its Beats streaming service and drop the price (in the US at least) to $5 a month - undercutting every other music service out there.

It's so unlike Apple to compete on price that it's worth reviewing what potential benefits Apple could realise from such a land grab.

Currently Spotify has number one status in the music rental market worldwide. That's not just subscriber numbers, but in mind share too. Whilst there are lesser services that offer radio style playlist streaming, in terms of open access to a music catalogue Spotify is top dog.

Google and Microsoft both have competitive services, but Beats is a bit of an outlier. It's not widely available and it's synonomous with a certain style of music (even if it offers the complete range of music). Beats uses people to create curated playlists - which users say work much better than the technology driven matching of other services.

Still, Beats hasn't really created much of a splash in the streaming market - in May the service was reported to have just over 100,000 paying subscribers. Against the 10 million that pay for Spotify that's weak. And Apple doesn't like to be in a weak position anywhere it's competing. It's an awful lot easier to bargain from a position of strength and as a result Apple needs to build Beats into a truly competitive offering.

Dropping the price to half of what the competition charges - knowing that they don't have the financial muscle to absorb such a price cut - is a good way of doing that. And Apple has shown that it's more than willing to trade short term pain for long term gain.

Why The Smartphone Industry Needs Fanboys

iSheep and Fandroids. Same-sung, Crapple and Micro$oft. The invective thrown around when two or more internet users gather to discuss phones, computers and operating systems can get far more extreme than just basic name calling. Most people will quite correctly treat this as the rantings of those with too much time or too little intelligence on their hands.

However, both the companies involved and you as a customer need these crazy voices on the edge of reason, because you are financially and emotionally invested in the products you use.

Unlike a car, where the brand you buy need not be influenced by any other factor than what you like; a smartphone or computer purchase requires the consideration of other factors if you aren't to be left with a redundant device and a hopelessly sunk investment. Imagine if your car could only run on Ford, Fiat or Ferrari petrol. Your journey is completely reliant on petrol stations stocking your particular brand of fuel. For companies with limited market share - the specialist market - they might decide that it isn't worth the effort to do so, and if enough make this decision your car becomes unviable as a transport mechanism.

In the smartphone market apps and third party support are the fuel that drives devices. If those new apps don't come to your platform of choice eventually it starves and dies. Which is why the shouting voices of those fanboys, ridiculing each other and generating plenty of passion, are important. We may shake our heads that people aren't able to have a civil discussion, but some comments will make us nod in agreement with the argument, if not the way it is put, reinforcing or debasing our decision to choose the phone or computer we use.

Microsoft, Apple and Samsung have been orchestrating their fans, with keynotes and adverts that look to score points off each other in the war to keep their devices relevant. Those machinations serve a dual purpose, increasing loyalty in existing customers whilst pointing out the flaws in the decisions of their opponents customers. Samsung's Next Big Thing advert is the perfect example of this tactic.

The platform wars date back decades (Spectrum v C64, Amiga v ST, PC v Mac, Palm v PPC) and the truth has always been that you need to pick a side and defend that decision vociferously.

Otherwise you end up backing a horse with three legs and miss out on all the good stuff that other users are enjoying.

Just ask Windows Phone users.

Windows 10 Preview Update

I've been running the technical preview of Windows 10 as my 'sort of' main operating system for around two weeks now. That is, whilst I'm using my Surface Pro for all of my paid consultancy work, my HP laptop is covering everything else.

The Start Menu is back in something approaching the form
that everyone knows and loves.
Two weeks in I've been very impressed. The HP is the sort of machine which is a nightmare scenario on Windows 8.1. It has a trackpad, no touch screen and is designed to be used in desktop mode. Windows 8.1 is better than Windows 8 in this respect but never really presents a comfortable transition between desktop and Start Menu.

Windows 10 is altogether more polished. When in desktop mode you are in desktop mode. It's as if Windows 8 never happened. Yes, the Start Menu is back bringing with it Microsoft's modern style interface in a much better interpretation of live tiles for a desktop environment.

Reliability has been pretty good so far. I found that Windows Explorer would crash when used to view images from a folder on Onedrive, and occasionally an app would fail to start. In the main though I could be using a production ready version of the OS. I've found that Chrome, Open Office and Steam all run without any problems; and more importantly my laptop feels like a laptop rather than the second class citizen it felt like in Windows 8.

Windows 10 feels like Windows 7 to Windows 8's Vista.

And that's a good thing.

Monday, 20 October 2014

iPhones Up, iPads Down, What Can We Learn From Apple's Latest Quarter

Apple had a record Q4 for iPhone sales, shipping just shy of 40 million of them in the three months ending September 30th. Given that the iPhone had a record first weekend - 10 million according to Apple's figures - that wasn't a surprise. There's no breakdown of how the sales looked per device, but it's safe to say that the majority of those phones were the iPhone 6 model.

What isn't clear from these sales numbers is that iPhone sales growth is slowing. In the same quarter in previous years Apple sold 17m (2011), 26.9m (2012) and 33.8m (2013). The rate of growth year on year is 58%, 26% and 18%. Given that this year's iPhone represents the biggest update since the iPhone 3G that's not such good news for Apple. Next quarter will need to be a massive one for the iPhone. For Q1 (which includes the busy holiday season) growth has been 131%, 29% and 8% respectively. For Apple to match Q1 2013 performance it will need to have sold at least 56 million iPhones by the time it reports in January. Something tells me that won't be a problem.

If the iPhone news was mixed, iPad sales were troubling. Sales were down for the third consecutive quarter and also year on year. Whilst the updates to the iPad line up are likely to boost sales (even if only temporarily) I don't think they are radical enough to fix the problems with Apple's third screen. Without major carrier subsidies it's being outsold by cheaper Android tablets because ultimately all of the fancy things that Apple portray users doing in their adverts aren't what customers buy a tablet for.

The Stock Market reacted well to Apple's figures and it's likely that another record quarter in January will send stock soaring once more.

Apple TV, What Happened?

Despite decent sales, Apple continues to
neglect its set top box.
I've long been an advocate of the Apple TV, even with all of its faults and problems. The potential of the platform is far greater than Apple seems to realise. That can be the only explanation for Apple's continued neglect of this landmark product.

Last week Apple once more missed out the Apple TV from its big unveiling, instead focusing on a couple of ho-hum iPad upgrades and a screen bump on an iMac. Disappointing.

And whilst Apple has been contemplating its navel (as far as the Apple TV is concerned) Sony and Google have both shipped products that do what it does much better and add the ability to play games from the Play Store and PS Vita Store respectively.

The Nexus Player looks like the pick of Google's Lollipop announcement, the sleek black player every bit as beautiful as the Apple TV, and having lagged behind in the past with some fairly dubious attempts to gain space in the living room, the Nexus Player looks like a breakthrough product.

Right now, in a complete reversal fortunes, Apple owners will look on jealously as Android customers enjoy the benefits of a home entertainment device that fills all the niches.

Right now Apple has fallen from the top to the bottom of the stack. Google, Microsoft and Sony all have better offerings that Apple if you want to connect your device to your home entertainment system.

And that's without the problems introduced into the equation by the incredible flakiness of iCloud.

It seems unlikely that Apple won't react to the Nexus Player, and a new Apple TV will appear on the horizon. However I remember suggesting that Apple had been left a huge open goal with the Apple TV a couple of years ago.

It's disappointing to find out that they missed it.

Apple Makes An Example Of Fitbit: Integrate Or Die

As with the ejection of Bose hardware from Apple Stores was a move to further bolster performance of Apple's new Beats brand, so the news that Fitbit is getting the same treatment shows that Apple has its eyes on a bigger prize - and it's not just Fitbit that is going to suffer.

It isn't just as simple as removing a competitor for the Apple Watch from the market. Actually for the next couple of years Apple needs to encourage competitors devices into the market. No, Fitbit's crime is that it has failed to jump on the Healthkit bandwagon and as a result its devices threaten Apple's long term domination of the health information market.

And that is what Apple's Watch and Healthkit are all about.

Here's the scenario. Fitness band manufacturers are being encouraged (some would say blackmailed, given the Fitbit case) to integrate with Healthkit. In the short term this probably looks very attractive to those manufacturers, they can do away with much of the responsibility for managing and storing health information and hand it over to Apple.

This is a dangerous place to be for them. Having handed ownership of that information over to Apple they have no lever to keep customers coming back to their devices. Next time around that customer will buy something else. And in a couple of years there will be Apple Watches at all price points that matter, meaning that most customers will be buying from Apple. Those fitness band companies are going to be badly hurt when that happens.

However I don't think that pushing sales of the Apple Watch is the prime mover behind this process. After all, Apple are likely to be able to sell every watch it makes. The more important factor here for Apple is lock-in. Once you've stored your health data in health kit it will be very easy to change your fitness band hardware, but leaving Apple becomes very difficult indeed. And above all else Apple prizes locked in customers.

By refusing to integrate with Healthkit, Fitbit has put itself in a position where it is a threat to Apple's strategy. As a result Apple is going to make sure that Fitbit dies. No Apple Store presence (physical or online), limited promotion in the App Store, and strong reinforcement of the message that Fitbit is no longer Apple's friend will all go a long way to marginalising the company.

As a result I'd expect to find that Fitbit is working flatout on getting itself integrated with Healthkit as soon as humanely possible.

Integrate or die.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

UK Proposed Troll Legislation Doesn't Make Sense In Light Of Finnegan/Madeley Meltdown

The petition demands that
Sheffield United do not offer Evans a new contract
and has over 150,000 signatures.
Over the years we've seen numerous examples of what the press likes to call 'trolling', the online bullying and threatening by comments and messages, that has become much more prevalent and visible since Twitter became popular.

The UK government has begun a process to ensure that those guilty of this abuse receive a stiff sentence and in the last few days has suggested that the maximum penalty by law for this 'crime' will be increased from six months to two years.

Currently the media has focused on this issue due to the Ched Evans, Judy Finnegan, Chloe Finnigan debacle that is running its course right now.

Evans is a professional footballer who was found guilty of the rape of a teenage girl and sentenced to five years in prison. His expected release after just two and a half years has prompted protests from football fans warning clubs not to offer him a new contract.

There are some interesting questions here. Is five years an appropriate punishment for the offence? How can two and a half years be? Having served his time should Evans be allowed to continue to practice his trade, or does its high public profile and visible riches mean that it is an inappropriate trade for a convicted rapist.?

Judy Finnegan, someone who appears on British TV now and again, appeared to defend Evans on an appearance on the Loose Women TV show, claiming that 'the rape was not violent. He didn’t cause any bodily harm to the person.' As you can imagine this didn't go down well at all. The lack of empathy for the victim and the dismissal of what amounts to a brutal physical invasion was met with howls of protest and calls for the presenter to be sacked.

Finnegan's daughter Chloe Madeley took to Twitter to defend her mother and the response was a backlash of epic proportions. From the deeply unpleasant (rape and murder threats) through to the unkind (comments about incest) to the humorous, Twitter users rejected the arguments, explanations and apologies of both mother and daughter. The Madeley's father threatened prosecution against the trolls.

And here's where the UK legislation will fall down. In a discussion about a subject as emotive as rape it's inevitable that boundaries will be overstepped. Twitter is not a good medium to have this sort of discussion, but in today's world it seems to be a place where these sorts of battles are going to be had.

Are the 'trolls' who have been wishing rape on Judy and Chloe any worse than Finnegan taking to TV to tell rape victims that they haven't suffered any physical harm just because they haven't been beaten? Would she really have said that face to face with these victims? Is it any wonder that those rape victims and their relatives, friends responded by wishing rape on Madeley and Finnegan? It's the equivalent of them saying 'walk a mile in my shoes'.

Hauling up hundreds (maybe thousands) of people before the courts will be both expensive, time-wasting and completely pointless. If Judy Finnegan is going to appear on TV and make such inflammatory comments she is going to have to learn to deal with the backlash. And threatening to sue those who she stirred up is absolutely not the way to go about it.

Most of all it seems that the real question that should have been asked here has been lost in the circus frenzy.

Why, having been found guilty of rape, was Evans given such a light sentence that he was in a position to resume his career as a footballer after his release? Five years (never mind two and a half) isn't even close to the sort of term that should be served for rape.

Judy Finnegan and the other hosts of Loose Women should have spent more time demanding that the punishment fit the crime.

F1: Closed Cockpits Are Not The Right Response To Bianchi Accident

Bianchi remains in a critical condition two weeks after
his Japanese GP accident.
There has been much talk about investigating closed cockpits for F1 cars following the terrible accident that befell Jules Bianchi in Suzuka a fortnight ago. And whilst closed cockpits certain add a degree of protection for some accident types it's unlikely they would have prevented the injuries which have left the French driver in a critical condition.

The problem in this accident was the violent and sudden deceleration of Bianchi's head - restrained by the HANS device - which could not be matched by the brain inside the head. Bianchi's brain will have suffered a heavy impact his skull, which is what lead to the widespread brain injury. This is different from the injury suffered by Michael Schumacher, for example, where the injury was caused by an impact to the head causing bleeding inside the cranial cavity.

The HANS device may sound like it's the problem, but actually the restraint is probably the only thing that has allowed Jules to continue fighting for so long. Without the HANS device the outcome would have been far worse. The last driver to die in an F1 car was Ayrton Senna. Whilst a lot of discussion has been had around the suspension arm from Senna's Williams puncturing his helmet and skull it should be remembered that Senna suffered a Basal Skull fracture which would have almost certainly been fatal anyway. Roland Ratzenberger's death was caused by the same injury, as were NASCAR drivers Adam Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

A basilar skull fracture is caused by the sudden deceleration of the shoulders and the continued forward motion of the head and helmet causing the skull/neck to fracture at the point where the spinal cord enters the skull. Whilst not always fatal in normal life, the violence and forces involved in racing accidents mean they usually are.

The HANS device can prevent that stretching of the neck, but in a violent impact like that experienced by Bianchi the organs of the body have so much momentum that they continue moving until they hit something solid - ribs, skull, pelvis, etc.

Had Bianchi been enclosed in his cockpit it's unlikely that the outcome would have been significantly different. The collision with the tractor resulted in his car decelerating significantly harder than a collision with the tyre wall that was behind it and it is this that needs to be the focus of the investigation.

Closed cockpits are not the wrong answer for F1, but to ensure that Bianchi's accident can't happen to somebody else more work needs to be done to ensure that cars leaving the track only impact with barriers that have been designed to soften an impact.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Using A Tablet As A Camera Is Just Ridiculous

Don't do this.
Cameras in tablets have started to approach those of mid-range smartphones in quality and pixel density, but if you use one to take snaps you're seriously misunderstanding the whole camera/phone dichotomy.

A smartphone camera is never going to approach a dedicated camera for capability or functionality. Image quality is always going to be better using a camera rather than using a phone. Even the daddy of all smartphone cameras - the massive 41mp Pureview sensor on the back of the Lumia 1020 can't compete with anything better than a mid-range compact. And that phone is far and away the best phone for taking pictures available today.

So why do we take billions of photos a day on our phones?

It's the old adage 'the best camera you have is the one you have with you' coming into play. We have our phones with us 24/7. They go everywhere and are always ready to grab that photo. Pocket to picture times are impressive and the phone is always in your pocket. The dedicated camera has become all but obsolete.

A tablet isn't something that we carry all the time, it isn't convenient, ubiquitous or even easy to use. You're highly unlikely to be carrying a tablet around instead of your smartphone so why not just use the phone to take the picture? And if you're going to carry around a second device for the purposes of taking photos you might as well go for a camera and realise the benefits of a device designed to take photos.

There is only one possible valid use case I can see for a tablet's rear facing camera, and that is for snapping a picture of a whiteboard or a flipchart in a meeting presentation. Even then I'd wager your phone still makes more sense.

So please, don't stand in front of landmarks or at the back of performances waving your tablet in the air trying to video or take photos. It might be big, but it's certainly not clever and everyone around you will mark you out as one of life's failures.