Sunday, 26 April 2015

Android's New Handwriting Input Panel Rocks

One of the things that I miss about Windows Mobile is the way that it offered so many ways to get text into a device, my own personal favourite being Transcriber. This turned the whole screen into a recognition pad for handwritten input. 

Since the iPhone-led switch to capacitive screens, input by stylus has become something of a niche thing. Only the Galaxy Note offers true sylus input and the handwriting recognition works okay, but not at the level that Microsoft achieved with Transcriber. 

Now Googe has joined the party, adding a handwriting input panel to Android.

I tried the new panel on my Xperia Z3 Compact using capacitive stylii and the results were very impressive.

Recognition quality and speed are really quite impressive, whether you write quickly and have whole sentences recognised at once, a write quite slowly and have one character recognised at a time.

Once you have gotten the hang of writing on glass - not something that I had a problem with having done it on dozens of devices over a number years - you'll find that the Google Handwriting panel is a worthy competitor for continuous typing keyboards - like Swype - and word suggestion keyboards.

Android owners can download from the Google Play store now.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Apple Watch Has 3,000 Apps, But Are They Useful

The iPhone 3G launched with under one thousand apps back in 2008, the first time that Apple had allowed the new phone to install apps. With the app store button now live in the Apple Watch app we can see that the Watch app catalogue is going to be an awful lot healthier at launch, some reports claim 3,000 apps.

Are they going to be useful though?

For example, the Procreate drawing app has an Apple Watch app. Why? It's a drawing app for your phone, what possible need could there be to use your watch to interact with it? Similarly games like Real Racing 3 and FIFA 15 just don't seem to need the watch-based dashboard as presented.

On the other hand there are apps like Do, Wunderlist, Evernote and Gogobot that really do seem to make best use of the Watch's glance based interface.

Clearly there is going to be a period where the gold rush mentality prevails and every man and his dog will be pushing Watch apps at the store.

Hopefully we'll see that settle down and start to get considered apps populating the store just in time for the Watch refresh next year.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

What Does Microsoft Have Up Its Sleeve For The Windows 10 Launch

Windows 10 is on its way - as soon as June according to some reports, more likely August or September. Its probably the most eagerly awaited launch since Windows 95 arrived. Windows 8 was a disaster for Microsoft, gaining as much bad publicity as Vista did back in the day.

Through a widespread beta programme, Microsoft has given us plenty of Windows 10 to look at. So the software itself is unlikely to bring many surprises.

In the twenty years since Windows 95 was released Microsoft has changed and is now as focused on hardware as its ever been. Which means the a software release as important as Windows 10 must live hand in hand with some impressive new hardware, designed to show it off to its fullest extent. The role that the Surface failed to play when Windows 8 arrived. Microsoft has a phone division now too, and with the merge of its mobile, desktop and tablet platforms into one the expectation is that new mobile hardware will also arrive to dazzle us.

Given that the Surface Pro 3 and Surface are relatively new designs it's unlikely that Microsoft will move far away from their current look. New processors for the Pro are the most likely bump here.

It's the mobile handset that I'm most excited for though. Windows 10 promises to bring Windows Phones bang up to date and make them compete with Android and Apple in a way that WP8 never managed. And to show off the software and build some buzz Microsoft needs an absolute belter of a handset. Something that is technically impressive like the the Lumia 1020, but faster, sleeker and shinier than Apple and Samsung's offerings. The 930 was good, but didn't really create any buzz.

Whatever the new Microsoft flagship phone turns out to be, it needs to get people talking. If it can do that Microsoft have a fair chance of riding Windows 10 back to the top of its game.

Microsoft Windows Phone Sales Up Again

Microsoft's earnings call has revealed more progress for Windows Phone in terms of outright device sales, with 8.6 million Lumias finding home in the three months ended March 31. That's an 18% jump year on year, which would suggest that Windows Phone is outgrowing the market.

However, the small numbers involved mean that even a relatively healthy jump like this only equates to just under one and a half million extra sales.

On the downside revenue fell by 16%, which equates to a fall in average selling price of around 30%. So not a lot of high end Lumias going out of the door right now, plenty of low end handsets though.

Market share is a good thing to have, and the more Windows Phone users they are the more likely that developers will support them. I'm not entirely sure that sales of lots of entry level 435s and 530s are going to convince developers that there's a healthy use base to support.

Amazon And DHL To Deliver Orders To Your Car

Amazon really wants to remove any obstruction that could prevent you ordering things online. As a result it has been working to take the pain out of delivery for a while, with its Prime service being the main thrust in reducing this friction point, reducing cost and improving delivery times.

For Prime users in Germany things are about to get a lot more interesting though, because the company has announced a tie up with DHL that will allow it to deliver your purchases into the boot of your car, wherever it may be.

Initially the service will be piloted in Munich and support drivers of Audis only. (A brave move in the heartland of BMW!) Customers will have to give DHL permission to track their vehicles location and, for the pilot at least, have some additional hardware installed into their car to allow DHL one-time access to their boot.

Amazon Prime EU head Michael Paschz described the service as "a delivery location that is always available and convenient". Which is certainly true, as long as you haven't parked in a secure location.

I'm sure insurance companies will be scrutinising this very carefully, because there are obvious theft and damage risks which will need to be factored into their policies if this takes off.

Nonetheless, this looks like an excellent move for Amazon and a bit of a bonus for Prime subscribers. If it works as well in practise as theory (and to be honest I see no reason why it shouldn't) then expect to see Amazon further strengthen its position in consumer purchasing.

Tidal Finally Scores A Win: Upload Service For Independents

One of the things that Jay-Z promised when he relaunched the Tidal music service earlier this month was that it would do a better job or rewarding musicians. After a rough start - the launch itself smacked more of elitism than of supporting artists and its app has plunged out of the iOS and Android top charts just weeks after the big event, finally there's something positive to report about the service. Independent artists will be able to upload and manage their catalogues.

This is an improvement on sector leader Spotify who requires that artists not signed with a publisher go through an aggregating service. It also offers no tools for managing things like artist bios and information on performances.

Tidal's open access for artists mean that they can keep more of their cut of the streaming service revenues, which should hopefully make it a more viable career for more talented musicians who don't fit the mainstream model and wouldn't therefore get a record deal.

I'm still not convinced by the service, but this is definitely a step in the right direction, and if it only serves to push Spotify and Apple to offer the same option in their streaming services that will be an acceptable outcome.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

AdBlock Plus Victory Threatens The Future Of Content On The Net

Content on the internet is generally free at the point of consumption. The content provider makes their resources available to browsers in exchange for viewing ads on the content pages. The content provider's business model is based on getting sufficient views and consequentially click through to provide it with the funds to keep operating.

Its a tenuous business model at best - we've seen some pretty big name sites disappear over the last year as the model fails to meet their funding requirements.

The alternative model is a paywall - locking up content (all or just some premium level stuff) behind a paid subscription or per access service. It has generally proven to be a limited success.

AdBlock Plus is a piece of software which prevents ads from displaying on websites. In doing so it damages the revenue stream for the publisher and makes it less likely that the website will be able to continue. 

In Germany (home of AdBlock Plus's owner Eyeo) several news sites challenged AdBlock Plus's legality in court. They lost. Which sets a precedent that could break the internet for everybody.

Major news sites cost an awful lot of money to run, those users who use AdBlock Plus to deny the publishers a revenue stream are effectively strangling the service that they use by cutting off the funds that would allow them to keep publishing news. Perhaps those users who install AdBlock Plus would never consider clicking on an advert, but by blocking those adverts from even showing they are impacting on the 'circulation' figures of those sites, which could reduce the ad display rates.

Worst of all, AdBlock Plus is a business that makes money out of damaging other legitimate businesses. For that reason I hope that the German court revises its decision under appeal. Otherwise those legitimate businesses will have to start employing tactics that ensure website ads get viewed - something that makes the web less friendly for everyone.

Updated to clarify that AdBlock Plus is the product which was involved in the German court case.

Facebook Sets Out To Win Voice Calling Too

One in five people on the planet actively use Facebook. That's a staggering 1.4bn people interacting through the service. 10% of the planet's VoIP traffic - that's voice calls sent over data networks if you didn't already know - are handled by Facebook Messenger. It also delivers 45n messages daily. So to say that Facebook as grown from being a social network to a global utility wouldn't be far off the mark.

These figures were released by Mark Zuckerberg as part of Facebook's earnings call. Also released: Facebook Hello, a replacement dialer for Android phones, which will handle call routing, call blocking and caller ID functions. 

The calling is effectively an extension of what Messenger already does. It's how Hello interacts with the information stored in Facebook which makes it exciting. Get a call from someone whose number you don't know, but who is on Facebook? The app will deliver pertinent information to help you decide whether to take the call. Similarly, outgoing calls will surface that same information so you're always up to date on the person you're speaking to. Powerful stuff.

Lastly Hello can be set to always bounce anonymous callers to voicemail and tells you if a calling number has been blocked by other users, saving you the trouble of speaking to robot diallers and pushy cold callers.

It promises to be a pretty sharp piece of software and demonstrates one of Android's biggest advantages. This can't happen on the iPhone, because iOS doesn't currently allow any direct interaction between the phone and third party apps.

Hello is available in the Google Play store today and more details and a video showing functionality can be found here at Facebook's newsroom page.

What Would A Google-owned Tesla Look Like?

So it appears that Tesla came close to being a Google owned company, with Elon Musk approaching Larry Page when manufacturing and technology problems stalled the company's cash flow and left it two weeks from bankruptcy.

The sticking point was related to Musk's demands, which valued the company far higher than Google believed it was worth. A belief we can now feel confident is incorrect.

Would Tesla have been as successful under Google's stewardship as it has been under Elon Musk's? I'm not so sure. Given the way that Google has approached the self-driving car we would probably be talking about a bright future for Google's Tesla, whereas Tesla has carved out a pretty good niche for itself without the input from the Google empire.

One thing I'm sure of though, if Page had bought Tesla Apple's plans for an electric car would be much further down the road than they currently are., wherever that may be.

Geo-Blocking And VPNs Under Scrutiny

Consumers in New Zealand and Australia are about to find out exactly how much power their media companies wield, as battle begins to warm up over geo-blocking and the use of VPNs. At issue technology that works around country specific content locks, for example keeping overseas users from accessing the BBC's UK content.

NZ media companies gave ISPs an ultimatum last week, demanding that they disable so-called Global Mode services, which implement an ISP level VPN solution to make users appear local for some get locked services like BBC iPlayer and Netflix.

Having paid for exclusive licenses for content it must be pretty galling for these media businesses to find that Kiwis can get the content for free and months in advance of the subscription services on offer in New Zealand.

The problem or the media companies is that the use of VPNs doesn't actually break any of New Zealand's existing laws. In Australia there are some more sweeping laws which could potentially be used to stop VPN services.

Netflix hasn't been overly bothered by users accessing its U.S. service from overseas as it means the company is gaining a subscription fee. As it is now making its service available natively in both Oz and NZ it's unlikely to implement geo-blocks that media companies, including Sony, are demanding. However consumers are still likely to plump for the U.S. services based on the earlier availability of content.

If VPNs are outlawed it does cause a significant problem for businesses who legitimately use the technology to secure their employees connections from overseas.

A far better solution would be for content providers to make sure that series are made available on a worldwide basis - as happened with the new series of Game of Thrones. Removing the need for geo-blocking in the first place.