Wednesday, 23 April 2014

iPad v PC Sales - Cause and Effect?

PC Sales have been in the doldrums for a couple of years, with the iPad taking credit for changing the market. There's certainly a correlation between the rise in tablet sales and the drop of PC sales, but is that assumption really valid?

PC sales are down in the enterprise and consumer markets, but is that due to the iPad? Or are other factors in play?

Three years has generally been the accepted replacement cycle for PCs. At this age a PC was so far behind the performance curve that the cost of replacing the PC was easily recovered in increased productivity achieved by the end user. As the PC slowed and technology raced forward, some businesses saw benefits from even shorter replacement cycles.

Vista (bizarrely) helped changed that by greatly improving the Windows registry. Many people don't understand the registry, but simply put, it's a database of system and application settings and configurations that is read into memory each time a PC boots. One of the big problems had been programs that inserted registry entries into parts of the database they shouldn't, causing performance problems. In Vista the registry was virtualised, allowing the system to tame these ill-mannered apps.

By the time XP arrived with it's secure login and differential access rights Windows was a true enterprise ready client. And crucially Windows was no longer responsible for machines slowing as they got older. Three year replacement cycles became five years and the rebirth of thin clients further reduced the demand for new PCs from the enterprise sector. An iPad makes for a perfectly capable thin client device, as well as coping well with enterprise email and as a result businesses have been able to leverage savings in their PC replacement budgets to investigate more innovative solutions that would otherwise have been too risky to contemplate.

For consumers none of this was really an issue - they stuck with their PC until it slowed and needed replacement. For those users the arrival of Windows 7 changed the game. A three year old Windows 7 PC generally runs as well today as the day it was bought.

Without the need to replace that PC consumers have been free to explore other technology in the home and the arrival of the iPad was timed perfectly to take advantage of that.

I don't believe that anybody could argue that the iPad could replace a home PC as the only computing device in the household - there are just too may tasks that are beyond it. However it's a perfect complementary device to one, stretching it's usable life further than previously possible.

So to sum up, the improvements in longevity of Windows PCs has been as much a driver in the growth of the tablet market as the iPad has been in the decline of the PC one. Which has interesting implications for the future...

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Thanks Google, But I'm Skipping KitKat

The latest version of Android is making its way out to more and more devices. However changes made by Google in its implementation of core features of the OS mean that there's a nasty surprise waiting for those who upgrade.

This update particularly affects users who have devices with expandable storage, something that Google has been trying to steer Android users away from for a while.

Applications will now have restricted access to folders stored on the micro SD card - only being able to write to folders that were created by the app itself.

That's going to break a lot of applications and severely hamper the operation of others. Worse still, for Android owners who've bought devices with 16GB of memory it will restrict their  ability to shuffle stuff onto the card to free space up on the phone itself.

Google seems to have been spooked by the way that Apple and some news outlets have portrayed Android as insecure and reacted by locking things down. Unfortunately this affects those users who choose Android specifically for its flexibility.

In my view Google had handled things wrong, both with this change and several previous ones. The correct way to do things would be to make these kind of changes optional - enabled by default but with a setting to disable it - complete with a warning message to deter the frivolous.

This same model has worked for installing software from locations outside the Google Play store for ages.

Stop locking down Android, because once its flexibility goes there are few arguments in its favour against the competition.

In any case, rather than lose functionality that I take for granted on my Xperia Z1, I'll be skipping the Kitkat update and planning on stretching the useful life on the phone as far as practically possible.

Have a break? Yes, I think I will.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Leave Our Bezels Alone

Hitting buttons in this corner
is a particular problem on the iPad Mini
Read any review of new tech today and very early on you'll find comments on the screen bezel. If it's not invisible - or as thin as a razor's edge you'll be reading plenty of negative comment.

This nonsense has got to stop.

Sure I understand that the ratio of display area to face plate size is an important metric in determining how good the device looks, but it seems device usability has gone completely out of the window.

And, horror of horrors, the worst offender is Apple.

The bezel around the screen serves an important purpose, it gives you somewhere to hold the device whilst using it. For a phone it's less of a problem, if you're holding the phone in one hand your fingers can reach around the device so don't generally need to rest on the front to get a good grip.

For a tablet however it's impossible to comfortably wrap your fingers around all but the smallest devices so the natural way of using one is to grip the device between your fingers and thumb. Which means that your thumb needs somewhere to rest on the front of the tablet.

Apple all but removed the side bezels from the iPad Mini when it first launched its smaller tablet, using rejection technology to distinguish between a tap and a finger holding it up. And it works abysmally. I can't count the number of times when I have been left swearing at it as it steadfastly refuses to let me hit a button near the edge of the screen. Buttons in the top corners of the screen seem to be a particular problem - exacerbated by the way that iOS puts its controls in exactly these places.

Reading commentators decrying bezels in review after review makes me think that either I'm using tablets wrong or they don't spend the time with the things to pick up on these frustrations.

Bezels are an important part of a devices UX - so let's treat them that way in future please.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Siri v Cortana v Google Now - Digital Assistants Face Off

The guys over at Windows Phone Central faced Cortana against Siri and Google Now with interesting results. Overall from their video it looks like a win for Microsoft. This mirrors my own testing - a report to follow shortly - which showed that on a range of queries Cortana bested Siri and matched Google Now.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Windows Phone 8.1 First Look

WP8.1's transparent Live Tiles,
Cortana and new notification bar
Courtesy of the Windows Phone developer program, the latest release of Microsoft's mobile OS is now hitting devices worldwide. Packing in a selection of updates with some new features and new ways of working the point version upgrade seems a little stingy.

The big recognition point will be Cortana, Microsoft's answer to both Google Now and Siri. Given that this is beta and very much pre-release the functionality and quality of recognition is fantastic. Having the Cortana live tile surfacing information that you tag as important in your notebook works as well as Google Now, even if the range of things reported on is quite limited at the moment. (To be fair that may be because I'm using a US service in New Zealand).

The second high profile change is the arrival of the action centre. This single place for accessing notifications doesn't stray far from the mould created by Google and copied by Apple: swipe down from the top of the screen to gain access to four (customisable) shortcuts, and details of all the alerts from applications that you have tagged as worthy. The top bar previously only accessible through a downward swipe now becomes omnipresent, meaning that time, power and network status are always available.

Microsoft have updated it's keyboard with Word Flow - a swipe style word tracing service that outperforms any I've previously used. It's quick intuitive and manages to do a better job with punctuated words than similar products on Android. Certain words will also surface appropriate smiley style icons - phone Mobile phone and car Car being two examples. It's a nice touch which typifies the consideration that Microsoft has given to this release.

Changes to the live tiles won't be to everyone's taste, however none are enforced so if they don't float your boat you can just disable them. Owners of large screens (4.5" according to Microsoft) get to choose between the two and three column layouts. It's also possible to turn your live tiles transparent and display an image behind them. Having tried this on the Lumia 1020 I can say that the latter works very well, however I'd be inclined to stick with the two column layout on the 4.5" screen, otherwise it can get a bit messy in there.

There are new intelligent controls for WiFi and battery. The former had some clever tricks up it's sleeve - it will find friendly free WiFi hotspots and register/connect to them automatically. It also allows you to share your home WiFi with friends without having to give them your passcode. Of course they'll need to be using Windows Phones too if they want to take advantage of this function.

Microsoft has updated the calendar, adding a new week view and swipe scrolling between views. It looks as good as ever and works well.

There's also support for Miracast displays for those handsets sporting the hardware to use it - only 2014 Nokia handsets at the moment.

All in all I found the upgrade to be a significant improvement in the Windows Phone feature set. To the point where the only reason for not buying one would be the absence of an application that you must have from the Market.  By the time the update gets released into consumers hands Nokia will have added its own update to the mix, which should make the new 2014 Lumias an even more appealing prospect.

Appealing enough to tempt iPhone and Android owners? I think it's entirely possible - Windows Phone looks better, it's now feature competitive and available on a wide range of hardware. For an increasing number of people that means that Windows Phone is now a viable option.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Magnify For Windows Phone Review

Magnify's category screen
- the app's home page
Whilst it's often true that most apps arrive on iPhone first, with a minority arriving on Android before making the jump to the App Store, there are a handful of enlightened developers who release on Windows Phone first, and when they do the results are often impressive.

A perfect example is the Magnify app, a news reader app which is beautiful to look at and use.

The app is a similar take on news reading to Flipboard but done in a visually more pleasing way which plays to the strengths of Windows Phone.

Feeds are split into broad categories from which it's possible to drill down to individual feeds or a whole category. The way that
parallax scrolling is used for images in the feed lists is especially pleasing and executed brilliantly. You can select both categories and feeds that you want displayed by Magnify.

Once you have opened a story scrolling is undertaken by the outside box flip. If you want to keep the story it can be shared to Twitter, Instapaper, Pocket or OneNote. Without wishing to be greedy, it would be good to see Evernote added to that list too.

Finally Magnify has a Live Tile which will span a wide column and display photos and headlines from your feeds.

If you have a Windows Phone I'd highly recommend that you make room for this.

Magnify (Beta) can be downloaded from the Windows Phone Marketplace.

Mozilla's Real Problem: Mobile Irrelevance

Mozilla has had an interesting couple of weeks in the spotlight thanks to its decision to appoint Brendan Eich as its CEO and then fail to deal with the backlash in any kind of way. I'm not going to cover the relative merits of that argument - it's far too nuanced and very specific to California in a way that makes it impossible to understand from the other side of the world.

As it picks up the pieces of the last few weeks the truth is that however damaging they have been, the real problem is that, at it's heart, Mozilla is a dying business failing to compete in the one market sector where growth is a given: mobile.

Mozilla's income - and very existence - is almost 100% dependent upon the payment it receives from Google for making their search engine the default choice in the browser. In return Google gets two things - search activity (and from that its own income stream) and a weapon in its war with Microsoft. Google cannot countenance a world where Internet Explorer remains the dominant player, however its own Chrome browser isn't universally liked, so keeping Firefox around assists in its proxy fight against Bing.

However the collapse in desktop PC sales - the one area where Firefox has good penetration - is a massive risk to Mozilla's business. Customers are consuming more and more of the internet from mobile devices. And a greater and greater proportion of that mobile usage is being driven from apps not web browsers.

So Mozilla faces a tough future - decreased usage on the desktop. Next to no browser penetration on mobile devices and a complete failure to make progress with its own mobile OS.

Whoever finally takes over the role of CEO needs to find a way to get people installing Firefox on mobile platforms before Google decides that the utility of their partnership has diminished so far there is no future in continuing with it.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Kenu Airframe Portable Car Mount Review

Finding a secure, semi-permanent mount to hold your smartphone in your car without damaging either the car or the phone can be a bit of a trial. Finding one that doesn't look decidedly low rent or block your view by sticking to your windscreen is even harder.

The Kenu Airframe promises to be the solution to all your woes - being discrete, well-designed and functional; as well as attaching to 'any' air vent.

The Airframe arrives in a dinky little box with a small instruction leaflet and the mount itself. It's smaller than I expected it to be - about an inch high and two wide, made of black and grey plastic.

Attaching the Airframe to your air vent is straightforward - twist the rubberised grip on the back to the right orientation, push it onto the air vent vane and you're done.

Mounting the phone is easy too, put the right hand side against the arm of the Airframe, give it a gentle push towards the right, locate the left hand side of the phone and release. To remove push the phone to the right and then pull away - if you just try and pull the phone out chances are the Airframe will come with it.

Considering that all of the marketing has been aimed at the iPhone, it's a surprise to find that the Airframe can accommodate bigger phones too. Both my Xperia Z1 and Lumia 1020 fit comfortably into the holder - as well as the iPhone 5 of course.

The Airframe holds the phone completely steady. On my Alfa Romeo with the Airframe located at the extremity of the air vent hardly any of the airflow is blocked - excellent news in the stifling Kiwi autumn. I found that allowing the bottom of the phone to rest on the dashboard below the vent made the phone stable enough to type on the keyboard without having to remove the phone from the mount (whilst the car is stationary - please don't use your phone whilst driving, no matter how stable your mount).

All in all I've been impressed with the Airframe - it does exactly the job I wanted it to do with no fuss or drama. My phone(s) felt completely secure and I was never concerned that the Airframe, phone or the combined assembly were going to end up on the floor.

You can get the Airframe from the Apple Store or order direct from Kenu - delivery to New Zealand took a very acceptable five days and as only one shipping charge is made makes ordering multiple units a bit of a bargain.

Rating: 5 out of 5

Monday, 7 April 2014

F1: Bahrain Result Sounds Warning Bells

Bahrain's first night race ended up being a great way to celebrate both the tenth race and tenth anniversary of the Grand Prix in the Emirate. A battle between the Mercedes drivers which was tense but never dirty, a close finish behind for the podium places and more evidence that Pastor Maldonado shouldn't be on the grid.

The race was the third clean sweep for Mercedes - pole position, fastest lap and race win. It was a second straight one-two for the team - only Hamilton's mechanical failure in Australia preventing the team taking a clean sweep there too.

The gap between Mercedes and the other teams is a serious concern though.

In Malaysia Hamilton's fastest race lap was one second quicker than Alonso - the quickest of the also-rans, but Hamilton was cruising for most of the race. In Bahrain it was a different and rather worrying story.

Due to Maldonado's brain-fade, which put Gutierrez's Sauber into a barrel roll the safety car was required, meaning that the race effectively re-started with ten laps to go - and the two Mercedes cars nose to tail. With a win up for grabs there was no question of either Rosberg or Hamilton giving any quarter and they went for it.

In those ten laps (and despite a battle that had to slow them both down) Hamilton pulled out a 24 second lead over Perez, who finished third in his Force India.

That's 2.4 seconds a lap. And Hamilton was on the slower tyre. And it wasn't as if Perez was backing up faster cars behind him. That's over two minutes taken over the whole 57-lap race.

On the basis of the first three races it's looking extremely unlikely that we'll see anybody other than Rosberg or Hamilton on the top two steps of the podium this year. Unless mechanical failure or a collision intervenes.

With everybody else already resigned to racing for third it remains to be seen just how engaging the season turns out to be. You may only need two cars to have a race, but Hamilton looks to have Rosberg on the ropes already - in Bahrain there would have been no race but for the intervention of the safety car, Hamilton a comfortable 10 seconds clear at the point it was deployed.

The season looks like breaking down into three races - one for Hamilton, one for Rosberg and one for everyone else.

Mixed News In Latest HTC Financial Report

HTC has endured a torrid couple of years during which it has managed to fall from the top of the smartphone tree to an obscure also-ran. That despite producing 2013's phone of the year in the flagship HTC One. The first quarter of 2014 didn't produce much good news for the company either as it posted another loss and failed to meet even it's own pessimistic guidance.

On the plus side, sales and revenue were up - breaking a 28 month losing streak that stretches back to before the launch of the One X. As these figures pre-date the general availability of the new One M8 there are small crumbs of comfort to be taken by the company and fans of its devices.

With a new line of mid-range devices alongside its flagship targeting further improved sales the company is aiming to break back into profit in the second quarter of the year.

To do so it has got some work to do it re-establishing its smartphone credentials. The new One M8 isn't a huge upgrade on the previous model and its gimmicky camera doesn't immediately strike me as something liable to drag people away from more traditional handsets.

What's required is a huge marketing offensive to show how the One's camera capabilities fit in with customers lives. Whilst photography isn't the main reason why people choose smartphones it is a big differentiation point between otherwise similar devices - especially in the Android market.

Here HTC have slipped badly - Sony is the obvious choice if you want an Android phone with a top notch camera; Samsung the second choice. The 4mp camera in the HTC One is losing the battle - and some. At the counter it looks a weak option, reviews have shown that gimmicky depth effects aside it is a middling quality camera.

Yet HTC manages to pack in so many improvements that should set it apart from the Android mainstream - Sense, Blinkfeed, Boomsound for example - that it should really be converting much more of the praise its devices get into sales.

Nokia and Sony have both shown that differentiating a device around its camera capabilities can work to boost sales and credibility. HTC have managed to drag down a very good device by doing it wrong.

It's a strategic error that needs to be addressed in future phones. In the meantime HTC's best plan may well be to try and sell the One M8 in the mid-range market (and at a middling price) where its camera won't prove to be such a handicap.