Friday, 19 September 2014

Farewall iPod, I Never Really Liked You Anyway

One of Apple's announcements from last week that I haven't touched on yet is the death of the classic iPod, the life changing machine that began the transformation of Apple from struggling also-ran to powerhouse technology leader.

It's almost thirteen years ago since Steve Jobs announced the first iPod and it was, without exception, the most disappointingly underwhelming Apple reveal of all time. Well it was for me anyway. The pre-event hype - restricted to the tiny minority of Apple users - had suggested that what Apple was about to launch was a replacement for the Newton.

At the time Apple was undergoing a small, but important mini-recovery, the iMac and iBook had refreshed it's design language and the PowerBook was now a competitive portable powerhouse. Next to no-one owned or used one though. The prospect of an all-improved Newton to compete with the clunky Pocket PC and limited functionality Palms was exciting. A Newton from new-Apple was doubly so.

When Steve Jobs unveiled an MP3 player you can imagine the disappointment. MP3s? I've been playing them from the CF card in my Pocket PC for years, who the hell is going to buy one of those? This blog didn't exist then, but I was vociferous in my disappointment on UK Mac forums and about half of other comments were similarly disappointed. Where was our Newton?

And for the first few years we were right to be disappointed. The iPod was a success with Mac users, but there were so few of us then it hardly registered with the wider public. That's mostly because the Firewire connection wasn't common on PCs - and until the iPod 2G there was no Windows support anyway.  Almost by accident, Apple's embracing of PC users created a success story of the iPod. Sales went crazy and until the launch of the iPhone there was no stopping the iPod as it became Apple's largest product.

For the last few years the iPod (now called the iPod Classic) has been on its way out. iPhone sales overtook those of the music player in 2010 and in the last couple of years sales figures have dropped off the cliff. Last week's announcement of its death was a shock only in how long Apple delayed it.

For me the iPod always reminded me of that missing Newton replacement - something that I had to wait another seven years for, until the launch of the iPhone 3G. I never bought one - there was always a better way to enjoy my digital music - and I don't mourn its passing.

As the product that truly saved Apple though, its death is a significant moment.

The Guardian Has Hidden Stephen Fry's iPhone Review

Less than forty-eight hours after being front page news on the Guardian website Stephen Fry's review of the iPhone is nowhere to be seen. In fact unless you search for it by name you won't find it anywhere, even on the technology section.

Why could this be? After all the iPhone 6 is the big tech news of the moment, and a scoop review from Britain's favourite luvvy seems like the sort of thing that should be prominent in the newspaper's iPhone coverage.

Is it because, perhaps, the review is so utterly woeful that it has generated a wide-ranging backlash, hitherto unseen even for an Apple product.

Stephen Fry loves his technology, that much is clear and I, for one, am glad that he's loving his new iPhone. After all, without this end-user delight what would be the point of all these new devices? However in translating this delight to the written word Fry has managed to produce an article which is basically a barrow-load of cobblers. Fine, he is after all a thespian not a technology writer. However somebody at the Guardian should have looked at this article and decided that it wasn't really fit for publication.

Other's have punctured the nonsense much better than I could - Gizmodo's take is here and The Register's rib-tickling parody here - but in reviewing the review I see that the first five paragraphs have nothing to do with the product but everything to do with ad hominem attacks on Android users, the sixth is factually incorrect, the seventh an exercise in name dropping and the seventh and eight highlight areas where Apple has badly lagged behind both Android and Windows Phone and is only now playing catch-up.

Had the article been restricted to it's ninth and final paragraph only it would have been infinitely better.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

iOS 8: An Upgrade With Potential

First of the big Apple products to land from last week's glitter laden event is the next major release of iOS - version 8. Given that this will shortly be the operating system powering more phones than any other it's worth reviewing what it brings to the party.

After iOS 7 introduced a new visual style (which is still divisive, one year on) iOS 8 was never to make many changes in the look and feel department. Instead there are many underlying changes which offer developers the opportunity to do more with parts of the iPhone that were previously closed off to them. For an excellent discussion of all the minutia of the new release you won't go wrong with Ars Technica's comprehensive walk through, here.

In terms of how it feels to the end user, I'd say it's pretty disappointing. The addition of Android-like features such as widgets in the Today screen, third-party keyboards and wider access to sharing APIs are definitely a step in the right direction. They just feel like too small a step.

The Evernote widget, for example, offers a shortcut to creating different note type. Excellent, that's a big jump forward from having to jump into the app and start the new note process there. You can even re-arrange the order of the widgets so that your key shortcuts are at the top of the list (barring calendar and traffic info, which reserve pride of place). On Android however, the Evernote widget allows you to do this and pin folders (with mini-versions of your notes) to your home screens. It would be nice to see similar capability on iOS in the future.

Spotlight still doesn't surface apps installed on your iPhone - an incredibly annoying and basic failing, especially given that there's no way of automatically sorting apps in to alphabetical order. If you've several pages of installed apps and you're searching for a relatively rarely used one that's annoying. The best option here is to use Siri, but voice control isn't always convenient.

Extensions and third party keyboards are much better updates though. The arrival of a LastPass extension for Safari, with TouchID integration promises to be  a game changer as far as web login security is concerned. The arrival of TouchID on the iPad and MacBook is all that's needed to close this particular loop. Swiftkey is the only third party keyboard I've used thus far, but that too feels like an excellent upgrade. Previous iOS keyboards have been nothing short of awful, but the use of Swiftkey's Flow mode makes it a pleasure to enter data on the iPhone. Much quicker too.

The addition of favourite users to the top of the multitasking screen is a poorly thought out change and feels most un-Apple like. Probably why Apple allows you to disable it. Finding the setting may prove challenging though, as Apple has tweaked some of the settings menus.

Safari still can't handle Wikipedia
pages, despite using it as a resource
One thing I was looking forward to as the introduction of the 'Hey Siri' feature - however as neither the current iPhones nor the coming iPhone 6 generation, sport the low power hardware to make this ubiquitous, the feature is only available when the iPhone is plugged in and charging. For most people that means overnight, so I'm feeling incredibly short-changed, even if my disappointment is aimed more at the iPhone 6 than iOS.

Last of the visible updates is the change to the way search works in Safari. The search bar is much more intelligent and surfaces results in the drop down box as you type. One of the sources for this information is Wikipedia, so it's a shame that Safari doesn't handle the default Wikipedia mobile view at all well. At least there is now the opportunity to request desktop view when mobile pages won't get the job done.

So the iOS 8 upgrade doesn't massively change the way you'll use your iPhone - it still looks and feels like the same phone once you've completed the upgrade. The new features feel like an effort to catch-up with features that Android has made work well. It's not an upgrade that's going to persuade anyone to jump ship from one platform to another and in that respect it's a safe upgrade for Apple.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

F1: Pit Radio Rules Complex and Unnecessary

New guidance has been issued to F1 teams ahead of the Singapore Grand Prix which detail the extent of a clampdown on pit to driver radio communications. The effect of these changes will be to ban almost all performance related instructions.

The changes are being implemented under the Sporting Code Article 20.1 which states that the driver must 'drive the car alone and unaided'. As such the FIA is particularly seeking to ban information which assists the driver to tweak his driving style through particular corners or sectors, where they may be losing time to rivals.

Some are seeing this as a disadvantage for younger drivers entering the sport, although that seems something of a leap. Experienced drivers will have to learn how to race without these messages, younger drivers have nothing to un-learn, so there's likely to be little or no performance gain in either direction.

The use of pit communications to assist the driver in planning his defence or attack against another driver, to tweak his race line and touch points to gain some speed through a section would be something advantageous if it were being used by one driver only. Given that it's use is universal I can't see a solid reason for banning it.

And whilst the list of allowed and banned conversations is not exhaustive there remains the spectre of drivers receiving penalties for messages which the team believes to be allowable and the stewards deem outside of the regulations.

Rather than a useful tool we face the prospect of just seeing the radio being used for drivers complaining about each other. And that would be a shame.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Apple Bullish About Converting Android Users

Whilst Apple's reported record-high number of pre-orders for the iPhone 6 (four million as of yesterday) is almost entirely made up of upgrading iPhone users and previous iPhone users, Apple is clearly upbeat about the number of Android users who will be tempted to jump platforms now that screen size issues have been addressed.

In a new page on the Apple Support site, users are given assistance with migrating from Android to iPhone - with detailed instructions and links to software to ease the process.

It's an interesting reversal - Android OEMs have provided this service for migrating iPhone users for a while now, but Apple has never felt the need before.

The next couple of quarters worth of sales figures from Kantar and the like are going to make very interesting reading...

Don't Get Too Excited About The iPhone's NFC, You Can't Actually Use It

NFC, useful for automation and simplifying connectivity,
but apparently not on the new iPhone 6.
Apple has famously been less than impressed with NFC in the past, so it's addition to the iPhone 6 is something of a turnaround. The prospect of using NFC tags to bring a degree of automation to the iPhone is something to get excited about, but as of now you can forget that - NFC in the iPhone is for Apple Pay and Apple Pay only. Which means that for around 90% of new iPhone buyers it's a complete waste of curcuitry.

If Apple is able to globalise its Pay service quickly (and it's underpinning Visa Tokens technology should allow that) then NFC should prove to be a worthy addition to the iPhone's hardware. Otherwise I'm going to chalk it up as a major disappointment.

As third-parties apps won't be able to access the NFC hardware there's a whole truckload of clever application developers kicking their dev machines right now. Although if the TouchID experience is anything to go by, NFC functionality may be something that Apple allows access to sometime in the future.

iPhone 6 Camera Is Leon Trotsky

Camera? What camera?

Drawing a parallel between one of history's most infamous communist leaders and possibly its greatest capitalist success story is a bit random, even for this blog, however the facts back the supposition.

Observe the photo on the left. It's the new iPhone 6 in profile, taken from the Apple website. Notice anything missing? Yes, the camera 'hump' has been erased from the image.

Is this a sign that Apple is embarrassed about such a clunky item spoiling the svelte lines of Jonny Ives new opus? Perhaps Apple doesn't want to advertise that the iPhone 6 won't sit flat on your desk, as the 4 and 5 did, thanks to their projection free back side?

Trotsky was removed from this image as part of a campaign
to Stalin-ise the Russian Revolution.
Either way the camera hump is gone, erased from history. A similar thing famously happened to a certain Leon Trotsky, famously removed from photographs by the Soviet Union, after failing to prevent the rise of Stalin to power in the 1920s. The parallels are obvious.

And of course, if the iPhone's new camera is Leon Trotsky, that would make Apple... Josef Stalin! Watch out for the Great Purge 4" iPhones, they're coming for you...

Samsung Smart Home Arrives In Auckland

As I've mentioned before, Samsung is looking to leverage the breadth of it's home appliance, technology and entertainment divisions to become a leader in home automation. A little under a year ago it made this one of it's targets for expansion in New Zealand and from later this month Aucklanders will get the opportunity to see how it all comes together when Samsung installs a re-configurable smart home on the Viaduct in Auckland's Wynyard Quarter.

For some lucky Kiwis the experience will be more than just looking and feeling, as Samsung will be throwing the home open for users to live a small part of their lives in the (not too distant) future. Visit this web page, pick an event type (everything from a romantic dinner for two, a dinner party or even just a lazy afternoon) and Samsung will hand over the keys so that you can experience how smart technology helps you make it happen.

The Smart Home arrives on October 4th, but you can make your smart home booking now.

App Review: Trigger for Android

Automation on Android has always been well served. Tasker is perhaps the most well known app on the platform - and for good reason, it's an incredibly powerful tool that let's you really get into some very heavy and powerful phone control based on all sorts of triggers. Tasker can be somewhat daunting though, not to mention that it's overkill for the average user's needs.

Trigger makes a space for itself by being more friendly and more restrained in the way that it does things. By default the free version of the app allows you to initiate actions based on Wifi, Bluetooth and NFC triggers. For some users that will cover all that they need.

However if you do need more control an upgrade to the Pro version adds a number of other trigger criteria, for example battery, time, calendar events and even geofencing. There's also support for plug-ins, allowing you to do things like automatically place a call or send an SMS based on a trigger.

If you're planning on using NFC to automate your phone there's even a plug-in that will allow the re-use of existing tags, meaning that for a lot of activity theres not even a need to buy yourself writeable tags.

So how difficult is Trigger to use? It's pretty straightforward actually. When you launch the app you're presented with a list of your current tasks. Click the '+' at the top of the screen and you're presented with the trigger screen. You can use multiple triggers to initiate a task. Click the '+' and add those triggers that you want to use. For triggers that need some more information you are asked to select it from a drop down list. For example if you're using a Wifi network as a trigger, you will choose the network name and whether the trigger should fire on a disconnect or a connect. You can also restrict when the trigger is activated based on things like time, day, charge status, Wifi or Bluetooth status.

Once you've configured your triggers you go through to choose one or more actions. The process is as straightforward as the trigger configuration. Choose the activity, add any required information and repeat until you're complete.

I have a number of tasks configured. When my phone connects to the Bluetooth in my car Trigger disables my screen timeout, launches Xbox Music and turns on driving mode so that my texts and emails are read to me. When I leave the car it performs a reverse task. When I get home and my phone connects to my Wifi it disables mobile data and does the reverse when I leave.

I've only scratched the functionality of Trigger so far, but I'm pleased with what I've been able to achieve. More importantly it has been 100% reliable. I've never had a task fail to run, important if you're giving over an element of control to the application.

If you want to make your smartphone smarter then you should definitely get hold of Trigger.

Monday, 15 September 2014

How Will The Apple Watch Work In Apple's Refresh Cycle?

Part of the reason why the iPhone is doing so well (and smartphones in general to be fair) and the iPad (and all other tablets) are having a mini-collapse is the way in which they are purchased.

The iPhone design is generally replaced every second year (with an intermediate refresh after one year) which dovetails nicely into the network's preferred two year contract cycle. It means that customers are effectively buying their phones on credit and make repayments through their phone bills. As it isn't billed as credit most people don't see it as such.

The iPad is a one time purchase (although 4G models can be bought with a monthly plan as per the iPhone) and there is no driver to replace when it gets to two years old. In fact until Apple obsoletes it's older models by denying them access to new system upgrades there's no reason to replace them at all. The iPad's sales success has been tempered by this issue.

So what of the Apple watch? Although it launched with the iPhone and it will have to be an accessory to one, it's sales graph is much more likely to look like the iPad. Expect record sales at launch. I'm guessing that this might be Apple's biggest product launch ever, given that it will have built up several months of hype before consumers can actually get their hands wrists on one.

What happens two years after launch remains to be seen. Will Apple provide a significant enough upgrade to persuade users to buy another Watch, or will sales tail off as customers accept the functionality they already have?

I suspect that Apple will have three pretty good years of Apple Watch sales. Both the first iPhone and iPad sold well in spite of their problems, but the real take up occurred when the second generation ironed those foibles out. The same is likely to be true of the Apple Watch, although as with the iPad the rate of improvement will tail off sufficiently to cause sales to plateau.

To prevent this happening Apple could effectively make the purchase of an Apple Watch compulsory when buying an iPhone by bundling them in for a single package price. It would be an incredibly audacious move, but Apple fans are sufficiently loyal and Apple's brand sufficiently strong, that they could almost certainly pull it off.