Category Archives: apple

IFA 2014 report: Wearables, Windows 8 and Phone, Android TV, Amazon FireTV, lots of phones, Spotify Connect

I am just back from IFA 2014 in Berlin, perhaps the nearest European equivalent to CES in Las Vegas though smaller, less frenetic, and benefiting from the pleasant environment of Berlin in early autumn in place of Vegas glitz.

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On the eve of a major Apple event, IFA 2014 was a chance for the non-Apple tech world to impress. That said, neither Google nor Microsoft bothers to exhibit at IFA; they rely on partners to show off the products which use their stuff. The biggest exhibitor from what I could tell was Samsung, or possibly Sony which also had a huge presence.

Google subsidiary Nest did not have a stand either, though co-founder and VP of engineering Matt Rogers did give a keynote, in place of CEO Tony Fadell who is recovering from an accident. It was an odd keynote, with little new content other than the announcement of Nest device availability in Belgium, France, Ireland and the Netherlands (they are already in the US, Canada and the UK).

The Nest keynote was memorable though for this remark:

We know neighbours have to earn your trust. We should too. Buying a Nest device is a lot like trusting us with a set of keys.

A smart thermostat or smoke alarm is like a set of keys? Not really. I may be reading too much into this, but what if Nest were to move into home security? How about a security system that recognized you? Might Nest/Google one day literally have the power to unlock your door?

My main interests at IFA are computing, mobile and audio; but I also slipped into the Siemens-Electrogeräte press conference, showing off smart ovens and coffee machines. It was worth it to hear General Manager Roland Hagenbucher explain that “Home is where your app is”, describing new app control and monitoring for Siemens smart kitchens. The question: if we need an app to turn on the oven, what are the implications for mobile operating systems?

The answer is that if the apps you need are not available for a particular mobile device, it is a significant barrier to adoption. This is the difficulty for Windows Phone, for which Microsoft held a press event in Berlin last week, launching three new phones, the mid-range Lumia 830 and budget 730 (Dual Sim) and 735. Microsoft also presented an OS update code-named “Denim”, also known as Windows Phone 8.1 Update 1. Key features include a new, faster camera app; voice activation for Cortana (just say “Hey Cortana”); and the ability to organise app tiles into folders. Oh, and not forgetting the Microsoft Screen Sharing for Lumia Phones HD-10 – the little device with the long name.

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The devices look decent and there are some good things in Windows Phone; the OS itself is smooth, the Cortana digital assistance has exceeded my expectations, the prices are reasonable, and there are thoughtful touches like the detachable NFC connection coaster on the HD-10. All it lacks is momentum, and achieving that under the shadows of Android and Apple is a huge challenge.

That said, I spoke to Dan Dery, VP and CMO at Alcatel OneTouch, who told me of the company’s plans for Windows Phone OS tablets. Which is all very well, but raises questions about the flood of new Windows 8 tablets, in sizes as small as the 7” Encore Mini from Toshiba, on show at IFA.

Intel showed off its new Pentium M CPU, based on the Broadwell architecture, optimized for low power (4.5w), small size (14nm processor) and cool (no fan). In a keynote Intel also talked up the drive for wireless computing, one facet of which is the Rezence Alliance for Wireless Power. Rezence has some powerful names on its members list, including Asus, Broadcom, Canon, Dell, Lenovo, Qualcomm, Samsung and Sony. Then again, many of those companies are also members of the rival Wireless Power Consortium which backs the Qi standard, used by Nokia/Microsoft. However, in the wireless power wars I would not bet against Intel (let’s see which way Apple jumps with the iWatch).

There were countless new Android phone launches at IFA. The challenge here is differentiation; every company says its devices are innovative, but few really are. What you get for your money is constantly improving though; I cannot remember handling any smartphones that seemed really poor, which was not the case a couple of years back.

Amazon launched its FireTV video streamer in Europe; I had a brief hands-on and wrote a piece for Guardian Technology. I liked it; it is well-designed for a specific purpose, searching for and streaming a video from Amazon’s Prime Instant Video service. It does also run apps and games (there is an optional games controller) but what will sell it, for those that give it a chance, is voice search through the Bluetooth-connected remote. I veer towards sceptical when it comes to voice search, but this is a perfect use case: pick up the remote and speak into it, rather than wrestling with a living room keyboard or pecking out letters with an on-screen keyboard. With Amazon it is all about the subscription though; the aim of FireTV is to get you hooked on Prime (fast delivery as well as instant video). It is less attractive if you prefer an alternative service, though it is a good specification for the price.

Wearables were everywhere at IFA and it seemed every press conference included a watch or fitness tracker announcement (or both) – many Android, but Alcatel OneTouch made the point that its watch was lower power and faster because it does not use Android.

Acer:

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Asus:

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Alcatel OneTouch:

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Sony:

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and so on. There does seem to be a lot of “because we can” in these devices, though some use cases do make sense, such as rejecting a call by tapping your wrist, or getting notifications. Is that worth a device which needs charging once a week (my watch has a 10 year battery life)? How much do we really want to track our fitness, and what do we do when health insurance companies get hold of this data and only want to insure the best risks?

Philips showed off its Android TV:

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While bundling Android into a TV set may seem to make sense, the problem is that you will probably want to keep the TV long after the Android part has gone out of date. Another problem – well, spot the background message at the top of this screen:

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Yes, it says AntiVirus Security – FREE. Just what you always wanted in your TV.

I also took a good look/listen at the audio on display. I will post separately on Gadget Writing; but the most significant thing I spotted (ha!) is the advent of Spotify Connect (this is from Yamaha).

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The idea is that with a Spotify subscription along with Spotify Connect devices (each device must be Spotify Connect certified) you can choose what to play and where from your Spotify app, and enjoy smart features like your playlist continuing unbroken when you move from kitchen to living room to car. No chance versus Apple/Beats you might think; but look how far Spotify has come, thriving as Apple clung too long to its file download model (see here for why files are over).

Curating an app store: does Apple have it right?

No matter how much market share Android grabs: it is Apple’s App Store that started this app thing rolling. Never forget that OS vendors and phone operators tried to push app stores before Apple came in, but fragmentation, horrible user interaction design, billing issues and perplexing compatibility problems made them a dead loss for most users. Today, Apple’s mobile platform remains the most important one in many sectors.

The trade off with app stores is that you give up freedom of choice (install anything you want from anywhere) in return for a safer and better experience; software installation nasties like runtime dependencies, malware or fake download apps do not exist. At least, that is how it is meant to be, which is why some are so disappointed by Microsoft’s store.

Now Apple has offered us some limited insight into its own curation practice. It has published the top ten reasons for App rejections for the last week in August.

Aside from the generic “more information needed,” the top reason is bugs, and the next two are non-compliance with the developer terms (could mean anything) and user interfaces that are poor or too complex.

Close behind it is another key one:

Apps that contain false, fraudulent or misleading representations or use names or icons similar to other Apps will be rejected

which accounts for the main complaint about some apps that make it into Microsoft’s store.

What Apple does not tell us is the proportion of apps that are approved, either first time, or after one or two revisions.

There is little to argue about in Apple’s list of reasons to reject, except this one:

If your app doesn’t offer much functionality or content, or only applies to a small niche market, it may not be approved.

Apps without content are fair game, but why should small niche markets not be served? It does not bother me if a great app for jellyfish spotters makes it into the store.

The other factor here is that if an app store has enough high quality apps then the bad ones will be hardly visible, other than in search results. Store curation is about presentation as well as content.

Is Apple getting it right? I am not hearing much shouting from developers about the arbitrary or unknown reasons why their app was rejected, which suggests that it is, but it may be I am not listening intently enough.

Embarcadero RAD Studio XE7 (Delphi, C++Builder): is seven the magic number?

Embarcadero has released version 7 of its XE programming suite. The main products included are Delphi and C++ Builder, RAD development tools that share the same underlying libraries and visual designers but give developers a choice of language. Delphi uses an object-oriented evolution of Pascal.

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Delphi is best known as a Windows Programming Tool – it used to be the main competition for Visual Basic – but over the last few years Embarcadero has added cross-platform Mac and mobile development with native compilers for OSX, iOS and Android. The IDE runs only on Windows but can compile for the Mac or for iOS New versions have come thick and fast – XE6 was released in April 2014 – so if you want to stay up to date, prefer for frequent upgrades or buy with a support and maintenance agreement. You can buy Delphi or C++ Builder separately if you do not require the suite.

The full RAD Studio also includes HTML 5 Builder, which supports mobile app development using Cordova (open source version of PhoneGap). There seems to be little new in HTML 5 Builder. An earlier PHP tool variously called Delphi for PHP and RadPHP was dropped some time back. I get the impression that Embarcadero is now more focused on its core good thing.

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So what’s new? Making effective cross-platform development tools is not easy, with trade-offs between productivity (share more code) and writing the best app for each platform (share less code). This edition introduces a new approach to designing the user interface, called the Multi-Device Designer. It is based on a kind of inheritance. You build your base UI in a master form and write most of the event-handling code there. This master form is automatically adapted, to some extent, to other platforms. You can see how your form looks on these other platform by dropping down a list.

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When you select the form for a specific platform, you can modify it for that platform. There is still only one form, but the platform-specific views override properties set in the master form. If you then further modify the master, the changes will flow down to the platform-specific forms unless properties have already been overridden.

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My impression after a five-minute play is that you will indeed have to made modifications to get each form looking right; the automatically generated versions were not too good. There is still good productivity potential here presuming the designer proves to be robust.

A common criticism of Embarcadero’s approach is that visual controls are custom-drawn on each platform, rather than using true native controls. That does not matter at all, Embarcadero always assured me. It does matter though; and now in XE7 we have the beginning of a solution. There are a couple of optional Platform Native Controls, TEdit and TCalendar for iOS, which do use native controls. I suspect this will be popular and hope that more platform native controls arrive in due course.

App Tethering is a feature/library that lets you easily set up connectivity between Delphi/C++ Builder apps on a local network. The first version only supported Ethernet/Wi-Fi, but now Bluetooth support has come, including Bluetooth LE on Windows 8 and recent Android devices.

On Android, a new tool called Java2OP lets you generate Object Pascal interfaces for Java Android classes, which sounds handy.

Aside: the naming of this tool suggests that the language is now called Object Pascal again, rather than Delphi, which became the official name some years back. Object Pascal makes more sense to me.

The System.Threading library now includes a new parallel programming library, including Parallel For, task scheduling, and futures. Futures are a way of creating code that will run at an indeterminate time. You associate a variable with a function that calculates its value. That function will run when you access the value, or before that if a background thread is available.

The IDE now has limited Git support (local repository only).

Another new piece in XE7 is Enterprise Mobility Services, a REST-based middleware stack that runs as an ISAPI DLL in Microsoft’s IIS web server. This includes database connectivity (using the FireDAC library), user management (though not Active Directory integration as yet, as I understand it) and usage analytics.

If you are using IIS, why would you not use ASP.NET and the Web API? The answer is that with EMS you can do end-to-end Delphi/C++ Builder as well as getting the performance of native code on the server.

Challenges for Embarcadero and RAD Studio

In the nineties it was Delphi versus Visual Basic, and although most developers who gave Delphi serious attention discovered that it was superior in most ways to Microsoft’s tool, the big-company backing and integration with Microsoft’s overall platform meant that VB was not much disrupted (though we may have Delphi to thank for the appearance of native code compilation in VB).

Today Embarcadero is up against Xamarin, which is similar in that it gives Microsoft platform developers a route to cross-platform development for Mac, iOS and Android.

From what I hear, cross-platform support in RAD Studio has been successful in reinvigorating the product within its niche, but it is Xamarin that has grown explosively, thanks to a combination of the C# language, Visual Studio integration, and a degree of official endorsement from Microsoft. Whereas Xamarin fits with Microsoft’s Universal App concept, shared C# code across all platforms, RAD Studio takes its own path, avoiding .NET in favour of native executables.

[I realise that there is endless debate about what native means, and that while RAD Studio has a good claim to native code, it is weak when it comes to native controls as noted above].

Unlike Xamarin, which has its own cross-platform IDE for Windows and Mac, RAD Studio requires Mac developers to use a PC or a Windows VM.

Embarcadero chose not to support Windows 8 “Metro” or Store apps, a decision which now looks wise, though it could yet work against them if Universal Apps are more compelling in Windows vNext. Another omission is Windows Phone; perhaps this does not matter greatly given its small market share, but within the Microsoft platform community it is a bigger lack than simple market share implies.

The advantage of the RAD Studio approach is that it is less dependent on Microsoft’s constant changes of direction, and performance is generally good. I have always been a fan of Delphi. There were some quality concerns when the FireMonkey cross-platform UI library was first adopted, but now in RAD Studio XE7 there is reasonable hope that the library is mature enough.

RAD Studio is the obvious route for long-time Delphi or C++ Developers migrating to mobile; it is a viable niche but I question whether it can ever move beyond it to grab a share of the wider mobile development market.

More information here.

Future of music: files are over says WME music boss (or, why Apple bought Beats)

In February at the music industry conference Midem in Cannes, Marc Geiger of  WME (William Morris Endeavor), which represents artists across all media platforms, gave a keynote about the future of music. Geiger is head of the music department.

It is from six months ago but only just caught my ear.

Gieger argues that the streaming model – as found in Spotify, YouTube, Pandora and so on – is the future business model of music distribution. File download – as found in Apple iTunes, Amazon MP3, Google Play and elsewhere – is complex for the user to manage, limits selection, and full of annoyances like format incompatibilities or device memory filling up.

With unusual optimism, Gieger says that a subscription-based future will enable a boom in music industry revenue. The music server provider model “will dwarf old music industry numbers”, he says.

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Who will win the streaming wars? Although it is smaller players like Spotify and MOG that have disrupted the file download model, Gieger says that giant platforms with over 500 million customers will dominate the next decade. He mentions Facebook, YouTube, Amazon, Netflix, Google, Yahoo, Pandora, Apple iTunes, Baidu, Android (note that Google appears three times in this list).

Why will revenue increase? Subscriptions start cheap and go up, says Gieger. “Once people have the subscription needle in the arm, it’s very hard to get out, and prices go up.” He envisages premium subscriptions offering offline mode, better quality, extra amounts per family member, access to different mixes and live recordings.

The implication for the music industry, he says, is that it is necessary to get 100% behind the streaming model. It is where consumers are going, he says, and if you are not there you will miss out. “We’ve got to get out of the way, we’ve got to support it.” Just as with the introduction of CDs, it enables the business to sell its back catalogue yet again.

A further implication is that metadata is a big deal. In a streaming world, just as in in any other form of music distribution, enabling discovery is critical to success. Labels should be working hard on metadata clean-up.

Gieger does see some future for physical media such as CD and DVD, if there is a strong value-add in the form of books and artwork.

You can see this happening as increasing numbers of expensive super-deluxe packages turn up, complete with books and other paraphernalia. For example, Pink Floyd’s back catalogue was reissued in “Immersion” boxes at high prices; the Wish you were Here package includes 9 coasters, a scarf and three marbles.

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This sort of thing becomes more difficult though as consumers lose the disc habit. If I want to play a VHS video I have to get the machine down from the loft; CD, DVD and Blu-Ray are likely to go the same way.

Geiger’s analysis makes a lot of sense, though his projected future revenues seem to me over-optimistic. People love free, and there is plenty of free out there now, so converting those accustomed to playing what they want from YouTube to a subscription will not be easy.

That is a business argument though. From a technical perspective, the growth of streaming and decline of file download does seem inevitable to me (and has done for a while).

Listen to the talk, and it seems obvious that this is why Apple purchased Beats in May 2014. Beats offers a streaming music subscription service, unlike iTunes which uses a download model.

Why Apple needed to spend out on Beats rather than developing its own streaming technology as an evolution of iTunes remains puzzling though.

Finally, Gieger notes the need to “put out great music. After we all have access to all the music in the world, the quality bar goes up.” That is one statement that is not controversial.

Here is the complete video:

RemObjects previews native Apple Mac IDE for C#, .NET, Oxygene

RemObjects is previewing a new native Mac IDE for its Oxygene and C# compilers. Oxygene is a Delphi-like language (in other words, a variant of Object Pascal) which targets iOS, Mac, Android, Windows Phone and Windows. RemObjects C# shares the same targets. Both can compile to .NET assemblies for Windows, or to Mono for cross-platform .NET, or to a Mac or iOS executable (using the LLVM compiler), or to Java bytecode for the Android Dalvik runtime. You can get both Oxygene and RemObjects  C# bundled in a product called Elements.

In the past, RemObjects has used Visual Studio as its IDE. While this is a natural choice for Windows users, much development today is done on the Mac. Requiring Mac users to develop in a Windows Virtual Machine adds friction, so RemObjects is now working on a native IDE for the Mac codenamed Fire.

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I gave Fire the briefest of looks. Here are some of the options for a new .NET application:

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Note the appearance of ASP.NET MVC 4, and even Silverlight.

Here are the options for a new Cocoa application:

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If you are developing for Cocoa, you can edit the resource file in Apple’s Xcode and use it in your application. I started a new C# Cocoa app, made a few changes and and then ran it from the IDE:

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I imagine Microsoft will be keeping an eye on tools like this – if it is not, it should – since they fit with the strategy of supporting Microsoft services on multiple devices. Visual Studio is a fine tool but if Microsoft is serious about cross-platform, it needs strong Mac-native development tools. Xamarin came up with Xamarin Studio, which is cross-platform for Windows and Mac, but the RemObjects approach also looks worth investigating.

PS The first release of RemObjects C# lacked full generic support, for which failing Xamarin and Mono founder Miguel de Icaza took RemObjects to task on Twitter. I was amused to see this in the changelog for April 2014:

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65764 Full support for Generics on Cocoa, as requested by Miguel

For more details on Fire, see here.

Amazon Mobile SDK adds login, data sync, analytics for iOS and Android apps

Amazon Web Services has announced an updated AWS Mobile SDK, which provides libraries for mobile apps using Amazon’s cloud services as a back end. Version 2.0 of the SDK supporting iOS, and Android including Amazon Fire, is now in preview, adding several new features:

Amazon Cognito lets users log in with Amazon, Facebook or Google and then synchronize data across devices. The data is limited to a 20MB, stored as up to 20 datasets of key/value pairs. All data is stored as strings, though binary data can be encoded as a base64 string up to 1MB. The intent seems to be geared to things like configuration or game state data, rather than documents.

Amazon Mobile Analytics collects data on how users are engaging with your app. You can get data on metrics including daily and monthly active users, session count and average daily sessions per active user, revenue per active user, retention statistics, and custom events defined in your app.

Other services in the SDK, but which were already supported in version 1.7, include push messaging for Apple, Google, Fire OS and Windows devices; Amazon S3 storage (suitable for any amount of data, unlike the Cognito sync service), SimpleDB and Dynamo DB NoSQL database service, email service, and SQS (Simple Queue Service) messaging.

Windows Phone developers or those using cross-platform tools to build mobile apps cannot use Amazon’s mobile SDK, though all the services are published as a REST API so you could use it from languages other than Objective-C or Java by writing your own wrapper.

The list of supported identity providers for Cognito is short though, with notable exclusions being Microsoft accounts and Azure Active Directory. Getting round this is harder since the federated identity services are baked into the server-side API.

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Microsoft repositions for a post-Windows client world

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has penned a rather long public letter which sets out his ambitions for the company. It is not full of surprises for those who have been paying attention, but confirms what we are already seeing in projects such as Office for iPad: Microsoft is positioning itself for a world in which the Windows client does not dominate.

The statement that stands out most to me is this one (the highlighting is mine):

Apps will be designed as dual use with the intelligence to partition data between work and life and with the respect for each person’s privacy choices. All of these apps will be explicitly engineered so anybody can find, try and then buy them in friction-free ways. They will be built for other ecosystems so as people move from device to device, so will their content and the richness of their services

Microsoft is saying that it will build work/personal data partitioning into its applications, particularly one would imagine Office, and that it will write them for ecosystems other than its own, particularly one would imagine iOS and Android.

This is a big change from the Windows company, and one that I will expect to see reflected in the tools it offers to developers. If Microsoft is not trying to acquire Xamarin, you would wonder why not. It has to make Visual Studio a premier tool for writing cross-platform mobile applications. It also has to address the problem that an increasingly large proportion of developers now use Macs (I do not know the figures, but observe at some developer conferences that Windows machines are a rarity), perhaps via improved online developer tools or new tools that themselves run cross-platform.

Nadella is careful to avoid giving the impression that Microsoft is abandoning its first-party device efforts, making specific mention of Windows Phone, Surface, Cortana and Xbox, for example.

Our first-party devices will light up digital work and life. Surface Pro 3 is a great example – it is the world’s best productivity tablet. In addition, we will build first-party hardware to stimulate more demand for the entire Windows ecosystem. That means at times we’ll develop new categories like we did with Surface. It also means we will responsibly make the market for Windows Phone, which is our goal with the Nokia devices and services acquisition.

Here is another statement that caught my eye:

We will increase the fluidity of information and ideas by taking actions to flatten the organization and develop leaner business processes.

The company has become increasingly bureaucratic over the years, and that is holding back its ability to be agile (though some teams seem to move at high speed regardless; I would instance the Azure team as an example).

Nadella’s letter has too many flowery passages of uncertain meaning – “We will reinvent productivity for people who are swimming in a growing sea of devices, apps, data and social networks. We will build the solutions that address the productivity needs of groups and entire organizations as well as individuals by putting them at the center of their computing experiences.” – but I do not doubt that major change is under way.

Embarcadero AppMethod: another route to cross-platform mobile, now with C++ support

Embarcadero has updated AppMethod, its IDE for cross-platform mobile and desktop applications. The IDE now supports C++, and as a special offer, you can develop Android phone “free forever”, according to the web site.

AppMethod is none other than our old friend Delphi, combined with the FireMonkey cross-platform framework. The difference between AppMethod and the older RAD Studio product line (current version is XE6) is twofold:

1. AppMethod does not include the VCL, the Delphi framework for Windows applications. It does let you develop for Windows or Mac OS X using FireMonkey.

2. You can buy RAD Studio outright with a perpetual license, from £1342.00 plus VAT for a new user (RAD Studio Professional). AppMethod is only available on subscription.

AppMethod pricing is per developer per platform per year. Currently this is £179.83 plus VAT for individuals (very small businesses up to a maximum of 5 employees in the entire organisation) or £600 for larger businesses (a rather large premium).

C++ support is new in AppMethod 1.14 and supports all target platforms except the iOS Simulator (an annoying limitation). It supports ARC (Automatic Reference Counting) on Android as well as iOS. Mac OS X is supported from 10.8 (Mountain Lion) and up.

There are also a few changes in FireMonkey. You can load HTML into the TWebBrowser component using LoadFromStrings. There is a new date picker component.

Another new feature is in the RTL (run time library). Called App Tethering, it lets applications communicate with each other, for example using TCP. These can be apps on the same device or remote apps. Once paired, apps can run remote actions and share standard data types and streams.

There are also updates to push notifications for iOS and Android, Google Glass support, updated OpenGL and DirectX support on Windows, and more: see here for the complete documentation of what is new.

A Quick Hands-on

I installed the latest AppMethod on Windows 8. The install warns that AppMethod cannot co-exist with RAD Studio XE6, presumably because it is essentially the same thing re-wrapped. The product name is relatively new, but there is plenty of old stuff under the covers. AppMethod still has a dependency on JSharp, Microsoft’s Java implementation for .NET. Java code in the IDE dating back to who knows when?

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There is a 10-field dialog conforming paths for Android tools, which is a reminder of how many moving parts there are here. It is more complex that most Android development environments because it uses the NDK (Native Development Kit) as well as the usual SDK.

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Once up and running, you can start a new project such as a FireMonkey mobile application:

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and then you are in an IDE which would not be entirely unfamiliar to a Delphi user in 1995 (or I suppose, a C++ Builder user in 1997) – I am not saying this is a bad thing, though the IDE feels dated in comparison to Microsoft’s Visual Studio.

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After coming from a spell of development with XAML it feels odd to have a form builder that defaults to xy layout, but layout managers are available:

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Compile and run, and after the usual slow initialization of the Android emulator, the app appeared.

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Why AppMethod?

In the crowded world of cross-platform mobile development, why use AppMethod?

Embarcadero makes a big play of its native development, though it is “native” in respect of code execution but not in GUI fidelity since by default visual controls are custom-drawn by the framework. This is in contrast to Xamarin (the obvious alternative for developers from a Windows background) which does no custom drawing but only uses native controls; however for raw performance AppMethod may have the edge (I have not done comparisons).

Delphi developers should also look at RemObjects Oxygene which also uses a Delphi-like language but is hosted in Visual Studio and, like Xamarin, uses native UI components.

The AppMethod approach does make sense if you prioritise maximum code-sharing over getting exactly the right look and feel for each supported platform, and need better performance or more capability than HTML and JavaScript can get you. There is no support for Windows Phone though; if that is in your plans, Xamarin or HTML and JavaScript development is a better fit.

Review: Sony SRS-X9 high-resolution network music player

Sony’s top of the range wireless speaker grabbed my attention because it is not just a Bluetooth and Apple AirPlay speaker, but also the entry-level device in Sony’s push for high resolution audio, billed as better than CD quality. Get all the ducks in line, and you can play DSD (the format of SACD) downloads directly through this device, or high-resolution PCM at up to 32-bit/192kHz. It has the speaker technology to go with it too: sub-woofer for deep bass (within the limitations of a small box), and super tweeters for extended high frequencies up to a rumoured 40kHz, though I cannot find detailed specification from Sony. Note that this is well beyond what humans can hear.

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In the box you get the wireless speaker, remote, polishing cloth, mains cable, two odd little sticks which, it turns out, are tools for removing the front grille, and a couple of short leaflets in multiple languages.

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The remote has functions for power, input selection (Network, Bluetooth, USB-A, USB-B or analogue audio in), volume, mute, play/pause and skip.

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This unit is flexible to the point of confusion. Here are the ways you can play back music:

  • Apple AirPlay: play from iTunes over an wired or wireless network using Apple’s proprietary protocol.
  • Bluetooth from Bluetooth-enabled devices such as smartphones or tablets. Uses A2DP (Advanced Audio Distribution Protocol) for best quality.
  • From a DLNA-compliant music server on your network. Sony’s free Media Go will do, but there are quite a few of these around.
  • Audio in using an old-fashioned 3.5mm jack cable.
  • Direct attached USB storage. I had limited success with this, but did manage to play some FLAC files from a USB stick. It is designed for just a few files.
  • Direct USB connection to a PC or Mac. In this mode the unit is a USB DAC. This is how you get the very best quality.

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Supported formats are MP3, AAC, WMA, WAV, FLAC, and DSD via USB after firmware update. ALAC (Apple lossless) is not listed, but an Apple lossless file I created played fine from a USB stick, from which I conclude that it supports that too.

So how is the out of box experience? The first thing you notice is that this thing is heavy – 4.6kg. Despite its relatively small size (about 430 x 133 x 125mm) it is not all that portable; I mean, you can move it about if you like, but as well as the weight there is no handle and it should be moved with care; it is also mains-only.

The introductory manual gives you several ways to get started. It covers only wi-fi connection; if you want to use a wired network, Bluetooth or USB connection, you are referred to the online manual here. Otherwise, you are offered instructions for iOS, Android, PC or Mac. I have a Sony Xperia (Android) smartphone so I took that option; possibly a mistake.

I tried to follow the setup guide. I have a Sony Xperia (Android) smartphone. I downloaded the recommended SongPal app and successfully paired the phone with the speaker with NFC (tap to connect). The app prompted me to enter my home wifi password, but I was not successful; it just did not want to connect and kept on prompting me. I got hold of an iPhone, tried SongPal on that and was able to connect. Odd.

Once up and running it was time to play some music. I was able to play direct from the phone (Bluetooth streaming) without any problem. My results with DLNA were mixed. I have Logitech Media Server on the network which supports DLNA. Bizarrely, this usually shows up as a source when using the Android SongPal, but not when using the iOS SongPal. It worked at first, but then I started getting “Playback failed”. I had better luck with Windows Media Player over DLNA, and also Sony’s own Media Go.

That said, even when it is working I don’t much like the DLNA option. There is no search option and if you have a lot of music you do endless scrolling. This seems to be a feature of DLNA rather than the fault of SongPal, and a reason why it will never catch up with iTunes/AirPlay or Sonos.

SongPal also supports various apps such as Tunein (internet radio), Music Unlimited and Deezer. You can also add apps such as Google Play. This is a tad confusing though. Tunein seems to be built-in; you can select a radio station, play, turn off your smartphone and it keeps going. Choose Google Play though and it plays over Bluetooth from your phone; disconnect the phone and the music stops.

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Since Tunein appears to be baked it, it is a shame that you cannot use the radio from the remote without needing SongPal.

If SongPal is not working for you, or if you have a non-supported phone such as Windows Phone, you can connect over the network. The manual suggests that you do a direct connection to a PC using an Ethernet cable, in which case the unit will likely show up in a web browser on 169.254.1.1. However if you connect the Ethernet cable to a switch (such as a socket on the back of your broadband router) it will show up on whatever IP number is allocated by the router; you can find it by looking at DHCP allocations, a bit tricky. There is also a WPS button for instant connection if your wireless router supports it (mine is disabled for security reasons).

Wireless configuration through a web browser, once you get there, is really easy. You can even set a fixed IP address if you want. However, the browser configuration does NOT give access to all the features of the unit; it is mainly for network configuration. The SongPal app has additional settings, including EQ, a setting called ClearAudio+ which does who knows what, and DSEE HX which is meant to enhance lossy audio files such as MP3. That’s unfortunate; not everyone uses iOS or Android. That said, SongPal is not much fun to use anyway so you are not missing too much.

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Once the unit was up and running I tried a few other modes. I ran up Apple iTunes and tried AirPlay, which works great, though with the usual AirPlay annoyance of a pause when connecting. When using AirPlay, you can use the pause, next and back buttons on the supplied remote. These don’t work in all modes, another point of confusion.

What about playing high resolution music or DSD? I was excited about this possibility so keen to get it working. I even have some DSD downloads to try. Discovering how was a bit of an adventure. You need to do two things.

First, update the firmware, by connecting over wifi and using the otherwise undocumented update button on top of the unit (check Sony’s site for full instructions). You need at least firmware 2.05.2.01.

Second, find and install the Hi-Res Audio Player for PC or Mac on Sony’s site. Third, get a USB cable (not supplied) and connect it to a PC.

The downloads to get this working are here.

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I was rewarded with excellent sound quality, though the audio player software is basic. On my DSD downloads I could see, for example, 2.8MHzs DSF indicated, and the configuration offered “DSD Native”, so I believe this thing really is a DSD DAC (though who knows, it may convert to PCM internally).

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Once connected in this way, you can also set it as the output for other audio software such as Foobar 2000 or iTunes.

The sound

What of the sound though? The SRS-X9 has seven speakers: 1 sub-woofer, two midrange, two tweeters and two super-tweeters. This means you get mono for the lowest frequencies, but that it not really a disadvantage as low frequencies are not directional and you don’t get much stereo image with this box anyway.

In addition, there are two passive bass radiators.

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As you would expect from a unit at this price (nearly £600 in the UK) and with some audiophile pretensions, the sound is very good. In its class – as a single box wireless speaker – it may be the best I’ve heard. It easily beat a Squeezebox Boom, sounding both bigger and cleaner. I also thought it had the edge over an Audyssey Lower East Side Audio Dock Air, which is another AirPlay speaker with good sound, though the Audyssey offers deeper bass.

The SRS-X9 does go relatively deep though, and the bass is clean whereas the Audyssey tends to boom a little.

The sound is not faultless though. It is a touch bright and can get a little strident at higher volumes. Vocals can have slightly exaggerated sibilance. Stereo imaging, as mentioned above, is poor, thanks to the close proximity of left and right speakers. The sound is exceptionally clean, which is hardly a fault, but worth noting if you like to get down and boogie; you might find the SRS-09 overly clinical.

These are reasons why the SRS-09 will not replace a traditional home stereo for me. I also like having separate speakers either side of my PC screen, so this is not perfect for that role.

HOWEVER as a minimalist and good-looking single box speaker this is excellent; perfect for a sitting room if you do not want the clutter of a traditional home stereo, or for somewhere else round the house where you want high quality music.

The sound over USB is best, and ideally I would suggest parking a Mac Mini or similar small computer next to it and using it that way. On the other hand, AirPlay also works well and in conjunction with Apple’s Remote app this is a convenient solution. Bluetooth can be handy too.

A few other notes. Sony has gone for an understated design, and the buttons on top of the unit are completely flat and in fact mostly invisible unless you hover your hand close by – it uses a proximity sensor. Clever, but easy to hit a button by accident if you are repositioning the device.

The appearance is glossy black, looks nice but gets dusty easily. Sony supplies a little black cloth for polishing. Unfortunately the super tweeters on top are surrounded with a slightly sticky area which attracts dust and is hard to clean; this might bother you if you are meticulous about such things.

The front grille can be removed with two supplied magnetic tools; Sony says this give a “more dynamic sound” though the difference is not great.

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It is a shame that there is no audio output port, neither for headphones, nor for external speakers. You cannot use this as a DAC for another stereo system, for example.

An S/PDIF optical digital input would also be handy, as this is more universally compatible than USB for wired digital input.

Other weak points are the fiddly setup, reliance on a mobile app for some settings, general unreliability of DLNA, and some problems which mysteriously disappear when you turn off and on again (with so many input options it is not surprising that the Sony gets confused sometimes).

Conclusion? There is a ton of technology packed into this box and it does sound good. I like the option to play back native DSD even though it is all a bit mad; it is doubtful that the inaudible higher frequencies really make any difference, and there are compromises elsewhere such as the mono sub-woofer and limited stereo image that more than outweigh any benefit from high-resolution (a controversial subject). Never mind though; Sony has taken trouble over the sound and it shows.

Good points

  • Flexible streaming options
  • High quality sound, exceptionally clean
  • Compact, minimalist design
  • Smooth AirPlay support
  • Support for hi-res PCM and DSD audio files when connected via USB

Bad points

  • Dependence on iOS or Android apps for some features, no support for Windows Phone
  • No headphone socket
  • No audio output for connection to other hi-fi kit
  • No S/PDIF optical digital input
  • Limited stereo image and sound too bright on some material

Specifications

  • Size: 430x133x125mm
  • Weight: 4.6Kg
  • Power consumption: 50w
  • Power output: unknown though Amazon quotes “154w”
  • Frequency response: Sony quotes “45Hz to 40kHz”.
  • Drive units: 1 sub-woofer, 2 passive bass radiators, 2 midrange units, 2 tweeters, 2 super-tweeters
  • Streaming support: Bluetooth audio, AirPlay, DLNA

Soundgarden’s Superunknown in DTS virtual 11.1 surround-sound: better than stereo for your mobile listening?

A&M/Universal has released Soundgarden’s classic 1994 Superunknown album in the DTS Headphone:X format, which offers 11.1 virtual surround sound through normal stereo headphones.

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Is such a thing possible? I am sceptical of the claims for 11.1 (11 discrete channels plus sub-woofer) though the DTS Headphone X demo app is most impressive, and you hear the surround effect clearly. When I first heard this demonstrated at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, it was so convincing that I took off my headphones to make sure that the sound was not really coming from speakers positioned around the studio.

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This demo is included in a new app developed for the 20th anniversary of Superunknown. The app is free. and also includes a free sample track in virtual 11.1, Spoonman.

If you want the full 16 track album in this format, it seems that you have to buy the Super Deluxe box: 4CD plus Blu-Ray at an extravagant price. This includes a voucher which lets you download the full album in the app. Note that the Blu-Ray also includes a 96/24 5.1 surround mix, so you can think of the app as a mobile version of the surround mix, though they are different: the credits say:

Surround sound mixes by Adam Kasper at Studio X, Seattle and Bob DeMaa at DTS, Calabasas, California.

The app offers four settings for listening: In Ear, On Ear, Over Ear, and unprocessed stereo. DTS knows what it is doing: with On Ear headphones, the On Ear setting sounded best and the In Ear setting muffled; with earbuds, the In Ear setting sounded best and the On Ear setting harsh.

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But how is the sound? The odd thing about the Headphone X system is that the spectacular demo raises expectations that actual music does not deliver; the surround illusion is less striking.

That said, there is a huge difference in sound between plain stereo and virtual surround. Unfortunately switching to virtual surround significantly raises the volume, making comparison more difficult, but the surround processing does open out the sound and make it more immersive. It is easier to pick out individual instruments. Bass is more accentuated.

It is not all in one direction though; the stereo sounds cleaner and less processed.

Still, I would personally choose to hear the DTS version. It is effective technology even though I cannot honestly say that it sounds like 11.1 surround sound. Producer Kasper is quoted though saying: “The experience Soundgarden’s fans will hear over headphones is identical to how I heard the mix in the studio when producing the surround sound version.” This could be a matter of which headphones you use, or he might be exaggerating.

I am less impressed with the app itself. Tracks are slow to load and I got occasional stuttering on an older iPad. The settings menu pops up repeatedly, rather than remembering your last setting. If you switch from the tracklist to the Player menu and back you get a momentary pause in the sound. The design is basic and it looks as if the app was put together quickly.

It is also obvious that having a separate app for every album is hopeless as a long-term strategy. Space is also an issue. The app with the album downloaded is 344MB and there is no provision for storing the music files anywhere other than in the iPad’s on-board storage. It is unfortunate that once downloaded, the surround mix is only available on that device; you cannot download for both iOS and Android with one voucher.

Overall I still like it, and would like to see more surround mixes released in this format. It may not be quite as good as the real thing, but it is vastly more convenient.

You can get the new app here, on Apple iOS or Android, and try it for yourself.