Category Archives: mobile

Xamarin Challenge shows bumps in Microsoft’s path to cross-platform mobile

Microsoft ran a Xamarin Challenge over on Paul Thurrott’s site. The idea was to demo how to build a cross-platform mobile app with Microsoft’s cross-platform mobile toolkit.

The challenge was in three steps. You build a weather app, complete with crash analytics on the Visual Studio Mobile Center.

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Someone did a lot of work on this, and the app looks pretty and works nicely once you get it running.

Despite this, I am not sure that the challenge was altogether successful. It is a step-by-step which in theory involves no developer expertise as you simply copy and paste code into your project. I am not sure that is the best way to learn, but that is by the by. I doubt that learning how to code for Xamarin was the primary goal of the challenge. I’d guess it was more about showing how easily you can build a cross-platform app (Android, iOS and Windows UWP) using Xamarin, C# and Visual Studio 2017.

Well, in fact a little bit of developer expertise was required to complete the challenge, because the step by step instructions did not quite work (in my experience). I did not make a note of all the times I had to do something not in the given steps, but there were many occasions, the main issues being around using the Visual Studio Android emulator, NuGet package management, and a few small tweaks to the code itself. The code as given made no allowance for the cloud services it called being offline, or the connection to the internet not being available, but would simply crash in this case.

The challenge could be an excellent resource for Microsoft and Xamarin if the company drills down into the problems developers experienced trying to complete the challenge, recorded in this forum thread. Here are a few examples:

Myself and 5 other developers in our office attempted the challenge and none of us have been able to get past the first challenge. We are not Microsoft Visual Studio experts so we had hoped following the provided instructions would be sufficient.

The upload was failing on a discrepancy between 2 different versions of the Json package, which somehow had crept into the project. Installing over 40 updates in Nuget resolved this.

Many thanks for running this challenge –this was very useful and worthwhile. I just wish modern development did not feel like trying to dance on a mile high stack of chairs with a leg missing on the bottommost one!

I got a late start on the challenge and was able to complete part 1 pretty quickly but was only able to run the UWP locally. I cannot seem to get either the Windows mobile emulator or Android emulators to run successfully. I can’t deploy to the Window Mobile emulator, it returns an error indicating the emulator failed to start. As for the Android emulator, it launches, but the emulator does not have a connection to the network, so the application encounters an exception.

Note that those posting to the forum were more likely to be the ones with problems; there could in theory be many others who breezed through without any issues. But as one participant writes, “I’d be interested in what percentage of participants actually got to the end of the challenge with no problems.”

I like Xamarin; it does an amazing job in enabling cross-platform development with C# and it would be my tool of choice for cross-platform mobile development. It is not always straightforward though, and the kinds of issues experienced by the challenge participants illustrate what can go wrong.

If you just use the native toolkits, such as Android Studio and Xcode, you will have a smoother experience, but of course miss out on the productivity benefit of cross-platform code. That is the trade-off you make.

Blackberry KEYone launches: but we have moved on from keyboard phones

First up at Mobile World Congress is the launch of TCL’s Blackberry smartphone. TCL is a Chinese manufacturer with headquarters in Hong Kong, and has licensed the Blackberry brand. TCL also markets smartphones under its own name and as Alcatel OneTouch.

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The KEYone runs Android 7.1 “Nougat” but with a couple of distinctive features. The most obvious is the full QWERTY keyboard, though this one has extra features including gesture support, flick typing (suggested words appear as you type with one-key shortcuts), and the ability to make up to 52 keyboard shortcuts to launch applications. The spacebar doubles as a fingerprint sensor.

The other special feature is hardware-based security, based on Blackberry root of trust technology. There is also a DTEK app which monitors security and adds malware protection.

TCL says it is “the world’s most secure Android experience” though note that alternatives like Samsung’s Knox technology are also hardware based.

None of the other mainstream smartphones have physical QWERTY keyboards though. However there may be a good reason for that. I am a fan of keyboards; I am a touch typist and the keyboard is one of the things which ties me to laptops or external keyboards; I can do without a mouse, but a keyboard is hard to live without.

That said, thumb-size QWERTY keyboards miss the point somewhat, in that you cannot touch type. I suggest also that the advent of swipe-style predictive keyboards has largely removed whatever advantage these little keyboards once had. Swiping only works on a touch keyboard, and is now very effective.

The downside of a real keyboard is that you get a smaller screen.

Still, there will be some users who find a physical keyboard reassuringly familiar and the shortcut feature could be useful.

The KEYone will be available from April 2017 at around €599/£499/$549.

Quick hardware specs:

  • 4.5-inch display (1620×1080 resolution/434 PPI )
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 chipset with Adreno 506 GPU.
  • 3505 mAh battery
  • 12MP rear camera with Sony IMX378 sensor.
  • 8MP front camera with fixed focus and 84-degree wide angle lens.
  • 3GB RAM and 32GB storage
  • Micro SD slot

More information here.

Asus ZenWatch 3 prompts the question: is it time yet for smartwatches?

Today Asus launched the ZenWatch 3, an Android Wear smartwatch set for release towards the end of this year. Price was announced as €229.

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Powered by Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 2100, ZenWatch 3 is a chunky affair, 9.95mm thick. “Mainly for the male market?” I enquired of an Asus PR person; “well, yes” was the response. 1.39-inch AMOLED display with 400 by 400 resolution and 287ppi pixel density, three buttons, one programmable for quick app launch, customisable watch face.

Forget all that though; the big issue with these gadgets is the battery life, which is “up to two days”. Whenever I have tried a wearable, the battery life problem is always why I abandon it. I realise you just have to get into the habit of charging it every night, but I am not used to this in a watch. A further problem with the ZenWatch is that you need the special charger with you at all times, since it has an unique charging connector:

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What about smartphones though, these took off despite their short battery life. The reason was that they added a lot of value. Email, maps, then Facebook and Twitter on the go. And if it ran out of power, at least you still had a watch.

The battery life question then is bound up with the question about how much value the smartwatch adds. There is fitness tracking, there is the convenience of glancing at your wrist rather than pulling out a smartphone to check an email or text message, there is turn by turn directions. Enough?

For me, not yet. At the same time, technology always gets smaller and more convenient. No doubt today’s smartphones will look bulky and inconvenient in 10 years time, and it may well be that the future personal communications device looks more like a smartwatch than a smartphone. You can’t beat the convenience of of something on your wrist, rather than something you carry in a bag or pocket.

That presumes, though, that either smartwatches get smart enough to replace rather than complement your phone, or that some other compelling feature turns up that will make them a must-have.

I’m typing this as the Samsung Gear 3 event is about to begin. Vendors are keen to make this work. Come on Samsung, wow me.

The battery life question then is really another question. Are smartwatches sufficiently compelling that

Sweetlabs Android App Services: what is it?

Margins on smartphones are thin, which is why we regularly hear commentary about how only Apple and Samsung are making any money from them. Vendors therefore look for other ways to monetize their business, though it is never easy, and there are plenty of examples of failed music stores and other premium services. Google can always make money, through Play Store revenue, ads served via Search, and monetizing the data it collects. But what of the smartphone vendors?

One obvious strategy is to pre-install applications, for which the app developer may pay. I say may because without inside knowledge its impossible to tell whether the Facebook app, for example, is pre-installed as a benefit to customers or because Facebook has paid something. Most users would probably install the Facebook app anyway; but fewer would install the Opera web browser, to take another example, so common sense says that if you find Opera pre-installed, it is more likely than Facebook to have paid for the privilege.

On Windows PCs, which also suffer from low margins, the pressure on manufacturers to make money from pre-installed applications has had a dire affect, significantly reducing the appeal of the product. At worst, you can pay good money for a PC, turn it on for the first time, and be greeted by a flurry of dialogs inviting you to install this or subscribe to that, along with warnings that your new purchase is “not protected”. Apple has never allowed this of course, which is one of the attractions of Macs. Another consequence was that Microsoft introduced its own brand of PC, Surface, and opened stores selling “signature” editions of PCs on which most of the foistware is absent.

The situation on Android should never be as bad. The operating system has a modern design, which means that applications are isolated and cannot cause as much damage as on Windows. If an application that you do not want is installed, it is easy to remove.

Even so, pre-installed apps on Android do introduce clutter and confusion, especially when combined with the constant requests for various types of permission which characterise the initial setup experience. I imagine that many users simply agree to everything, since the consequences of denying permission are rarely clear, and most want their new device to “just work.”

Sweetlabs is a company which specialises in monetizing app installs on Windows as well as Android. On Windows it is best known for the Pokki app store. Sweetlabs does not always present its brand overtly to users. Users are not its customers after all; its customers are app developers and smartphone vendors.

I reviewed a smartphone recently, and soon after switching on for the first time, I saw a notification inviting me to “Complete device setup” and to “Allow App Services to push messages to the n…” (I am still not sure what is the cut-off word):

If you tap this notification an app installer opens, presenting a small selection of apps categorised as either “Essentials” or “Entertainment”. You are meant to select the apps you want and then tap Finish to have those apps install, agreeing the terms and conditions as you do. Once you tap Finish, the notification disappears, though I noticed that the Sweetlabs service continues to run in the background:

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My understanding is that the service continues to run because at some future date more apps may become available. The Sweetlabs site talks about promoting apps through “multiple customer-facing touchpoints, including white-label apps and widgets that integrate into the out-of-box experience and persist through the lifetime of the device.” This can include a Featured Apps widget on the home screen that recommends apps “over the lifetime of the device.”

Is this a good or bad thing? The answer is nuanced. I dislike the way the notification implies that these optional app install are part of device setup; it is not, it is a marketing app. You can get all these apps through the official Play Store and App Services is consuming unnecessary system resources.

On the other hand, if you accept that pre-installing apps is inevitable given the low margins in this business, the Sweetlabs approach has advantages. Instead of simply dumping a bunch of unwanted apps on your device, you can choose which ones you want, if any. Therefore the company promotes itself as a better approach, even presenting itself as a fix for crapware. My review device had pre-installed apps on it as well, though, so it is more a case of putting up with both.

From the perspective of app developers, any service that helps get your app noticed in a beyond-crowded market is a significant benefit. Sweetlabs also offers an app analytics service focused on who is installing your app.

I wrote this post because I did not find much information about App Services when I searched for it after seeing the notification on my review device. If you are wondering whether you need it on your device, the answer is no; it does nothing essential, it is a vehicle for promoting apps, and you can safely disable or remove it. I recommend installing apps from the Play Store instead, where you can see user reviews and other information. It is not really evil though; it may have reduced the price of your smartphone as well as providing app developers another way to get their products noticed.

Honor 8 smartphone first look

I’m just back from Paris and the European launch of the Honor 8 smartphone.

Honor is wholly owned by Huawei though the relationship between the two businesses is a tad opaque. I’ve been told that Honor is run as a separate business focusing on a young internet-oriented market, though there is shared technology (it would be crazy not to). The Honor 8 represents a significant strategy shift in that it is a relatively high-end phone, whereas previous devices have been mid-range or lower.

One of the first things you notice about the Honor 8 though is its similarity to the Huawei P9, launched in Europe in April 2016, is obvious. That is no bad thing, since the P9 is excellent and the Honor 8 cheaper,  but the business strategy is a bit of a puzzle. Honor says its phone is targeting a different market, and it is true that the shiny glass body of the Honor 8, in a pleasing blue shade on my review unit, is jauntier than the grey metallic finish of the P9. The P9 is also a fraction slimmer. Yet the devices are far more alike than different, and I would happily pull out the Honor 8 at a business meeting. The Honor 8 also benefits from a few extra features, like the rear smart key.

The P9 has the benefit of Leica branding and shared technology for its camera. An Honor/Huawei PR person told me that this is a software-only distinction and that if you look at the hardware sensors the two phones are very similar. Should photographers therefore get the P9? Possibly, though for a casual snapper like myself I have not noticed a big advantage. See below for some comparative snaps.

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The Honor 8 (left) and the Huawei P9 (right).

To get a bit of context, the Honor 8 is being launched at €399 with 4GB RAM and 32 GB storage, or €449 with 4GB RAM and 64GB storage (inc VAT). That should equate to around £345 and £390 in the UK. The P9 was launched at £449 for 3GB RAM and 32GB storage, substantially more, though as ever real-world prices vary, and in practice a P9 today will likely cost only a little more than an Honor 8 if you shop around. The 8-core Kirin processor is the same, and the screen is the same resolution at 1920 x 1080. Both models also feature a dual-lens 12MP rear camera, 8MP front lens, and a rear fingerprint reader.

Out of the box

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The Honor 8 immediately impressed me as a nicely packaged device. You get headset, charger, USB C cable, SIM removal tool, quick start guide (not much use but does have a diagram showing exactly where to insert dual Nano-SIMs and microSD card) and a couple of stickers for good measure. I am not a fan of the headset which lacks any ear-bud gels so it not secure or comfortable for me, but tastes vary.

The glass body is attractive though shiny and easy to smear. Honor can supply a simple transparent case – more a tray than a case – which will offer a little protection, but most users will want something more.

Switch on and there is the usual Android palaver and confusion over permissions. Here I did notice something I dislike. I got a notification saying I should “complete device setup” and “Allow App Services to push messages”:

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Rather than tapping Allow, I tapped the notification and found an app installer and an invitation to “Choose the apps that come with your phone”. I tapped to see the EULA (End User License Agreement) and found it was a Sweetlabs app that “facilitates the recommendation, download and installation of third party apps.”

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This is horrible; it is deceptive in that it is presented as part of system setup and performs no useful function since you can easily install apps from the Google Play store; at least one of the apps offered by Sweetlabs (Twitter) was actually already installed. My opinion of which apps are “Essential” differs from that of Sweetlabs:

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I did not agree the Terms and Conditions. We have seen this kind of thing before, on Windows, and it is damaging to the user experience. History may repeat with Android.

Other than that, setup was straightforward.

Things to like

Fortunately, there is plenty to like. As on the P9, the fingerprint reader on the back is excellent; in fact, I like this feature so much that I sometimes absent mindedly tap the back of other phones and expect them to unlock for me. On the Honor 8 though, it is even better, since the fingerprint reader is also a “Smart key” which you can configure to open an app or take an action such as starting a voice recording or opening the camera. You can configure up to three shortcuts, for press, double press, press and hold.

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Another neat feature, also not on the P9, is the Smart Controller. This is a universal infra-red controller app and it seems rather good. I pointed it at a Samsung TV and after trying a few functions it declared a “best match” and seems to work fine.

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The camera

The camera is a key selling point for the Honor 8. One lens is RGB, the other monochrome, auto-focus is better with two lenses, and the ISP (Image Signal Processor) takes advantage by recording extra detail. There is also a great feature called Wide Aperture which lets you adjust the focus after the event.

When the camera app is open you can swipe from the left to select a mode. There are 16 modes:

Photo
Pro Photo
Beauty
Video
Pro Video
Beauty Video
Good Food
Panorama
HDR (High Dynamic Range)
Night Shot
Light Painting
Time-lapse
Slow-Mo
Watermark
Audio note
Document Scan

After just one day with the device I have not tried all the modes, but did take a look at Pro Photo which gives you control over the metering mode, ISO sensitivity, shutter speed, exposure compensation, focus mode (automatic or manual), and white balance.

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These same controls are on the P9 though with a slightly different UI and this causes me to wonder exactly what is the Leica contribution that is on the P9 but not the Honor 8. There are a few extra settings on the P9 if you swipe in from the right, including film mode, RAW mode and a Leica watermark option.

How is the camera in use? I took some snaps and was pleased with the results. I also tried taking a similar picture on the Honor 8 and the P9, and comparing the results:

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A Paris landmark (P9 left, Honor 8 right)

You can’t tell much from the full view, especially since I’ve resized the images for this post, so here is a detail from the above:

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Detail view (P9 left, Honor 8 right)

Much difference? Please do not draw conclusions from one snap but these support my impression that the Leica-enhanced P9 takes slightly sharper pictures than the Honor 8, but that a casual user would be happy with either.

Performance

The performance of the Honor 8 seems similar to that of the P9 which I reviewed here. The P9 features a Kirin 955 SoC versus the slightly older Kirin 950 in the Honor 8; the specs are similar. Both have 4 Cortex A72 cores, up to 2.5GHz in the Kirin 255 versus up to 2.3GHz in the Kirin 950. In each case, these are supplemented by 4 Cortex A53 cores at up to 1.8GHz and a quad-core Mali T880 MP4 GPU.

Geekbench 3, for example, reports 1703 single-core score and 6285 multi-core, one figure slightly worse, one slightly better than the P9. A run with PC mark came up with a Work Performance Score of 5799, below the P9 at 6387, with the difference mainly accounted for by a poor “Writing score”; other scores were slightly ahead of the P9, so something may be sub-optimal in the text handling and scrolling.

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Conclusion

I do like this phone; it looks good, feels responsive, and comes with some distinctive features, including the superb fingerprint reader, dual lens rear camera, smart key and smart controller. It does not seem to me to be a young person’s phone particularly, and I can see some people choosing it over a P9 not only for its lower price but also for a couple of extra features. Photographers may slightly prefer the P9, which also has a fractionally slimmer body and a more elegant, understated appearance. In the general phone market, the Honor 8 is competitively priced and well featured; I expect it to do well.

Wind up your iPhone–this is not a wind up!

I have long thought that the solution to the difficulties we have keeping mobile devices charged is to make more use of the energy created by our bodies as we move around.

Once long ago I had a mechanical watch whose automatic winding worked perfectly; I never had to think about it.

Today I received news of something which is not quite that, but which still sounds useful. An iPhone case equipped with a dynamo so you can turn a handle to recharge it.

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Claiming to be the “World’s first dynamo-powered iPhone case”, the AMPware Power Generating iPhone case offers up to 2 hours phone use from “10 minutes of winding”.

Let’s note that 10 minutes of winding feels like a long time when you are doing it. However, if you are stranded without power it could be most useful.

Currently the case is for iPhone 6 and 6S only. Cost is £69.99 from The Fowndry

Huawei P9 smartphone launched in London: first look review

I attended the launch of Huawei’s P9 and P9+ smartphone range in London. This was a global launch from a Chinese company which, like Xiaomi with its impressive presentation at Mobile World Congress, is intent on competing at the high end of the market.

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Huawei also has an important edge over Xiaomi in that its P9 range will be available shortly; from Huawei’s vMall online store in mid-April, or from various UK operators in “early May”.

The review sample came in a smart box with charger, USB type C cable, and white earbuds/headset:

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Insert micro-SIM, switch on, and the start-up experience I would describe as “reasonable for Android”, with a flurry of pop-ups asking for various permissions and agreements to terms and privacy policies; pretty ugly and hard to make sense of, but for this review I tapped OK to agree to most things in order to get what I guess is the normal experience.

I was also prompted to set up the fingerprint reader. This requires several readings of your finger and works well for me. Just touching my right finger on the back will unlock the phone. The phone storage is encrypted by default.

Design-wise, Huawei tried to persuade of the merits of “aerospace-class aluminium”, “diamond-cut edges”, “brushed hairlines” and the like; but while it is decent enough it does not strike me as exceptionally beautiful or nice to hold; of course tastes vary. It is thin and the edges are narrow to maximise the screen space. I am impressed that the designers squeezed a 3000 mAh battery into such a slim, light device.

The camera

Every smartphone needs some differentiation. Huawei has focused (ha!) on the camera. The P9 has a dual lens and the camera is designed in partnership with Leica, a well known and respected brand among professional photographers.

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The back of the P9 showing the dual-lens camera and fingerprint reader.

Both lenses are described as “Leica Summarit”, one 12MP camera is colour and the other monochrome. Dual lenses can help with focus, and in addition Huawei say that the monochrome lens adds detail to an image. You can also take monochrome pictures of course, and this was used to good effect in some of the samples by professional photographers we were shown. Of course you can easily convert any colour image from any camera to monochrome; perhaps the results from a specialist camera are superior.

Huawei also states that dual cameras mean more light and detail in low-light conditions, which absolutely makes sense.

A hybrid focus feature uses “laser, depth calculation, and contrast” and automatically selects the best result, says Huawei.

I have not been trying the P9 for long, but did take roughly the same picture with the P9 and with the Lumia 1020 (the latter famous for its 40MP camera). All settings were default. The P9 is top, the Lumia below, slightly cropped and then reduced in resolution (click for a double-size image):

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The P9 is more vivid and probably most people would prefer it. Here is a zoomed in detail, with the P9 at full resolution and the Lumia reduced to match:

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Of course I am not a professional photographer, nor was I using a tripod; but this is how I use a camera on a phone. My feeling is that the Lumia still comes out well for close detail and I am sorry that Microsoft has not come out with a true successor to the 1020, which will be three years old in July. The sad story of Windows Phone at Microsoft is not the subject of this post however.

There is much more to the P9 camera though. Here is a look at the settings:

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When the camera is open,  there are buttons across the top to control flash, wide aperture (for close-up shots), filter effects, and switching between rear and front (8MP) cameras.

The wide aperture option enables a remarkable feature: the ability to re-focus after taking the shot. Simply take the picture with the wide aperture option. It will be then show up in the Gallery with an aperture icon overlay. Tap the image to open it, then tap the aperture icon below the image.

Now you are in “wide aperture effects” mode. Tap any part of the image to focus on that spot, and enable a slider to vary the aperture after the event.

It really works:

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Now tap the out of focus tulip…

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This is magic and a lot of fun.

You can swipe up for Pro controls:

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In order to get full use of these options (and indeed the rest of the phone) you probably want to download the manual. The Pro controls are (left to right): metering mode (how exposure is set), ISO, Shutter speed, exposure compensation (brightness), focus mode and white balance.

Swipe left for a selection of special camera modes:

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There is also some fancy stuff like voice activated shooting (say “cheese” to take a photo). You can do burst shooting to take a rapid sequence of shots, with the best couple auto-selected. You can take rapid shots (capture the moment) by pressing volume down twice; the screen does not light up immediately but the shot is taken. I got a time from press to photo of about one second using this mode.

Video resolution is a maximum of 1080p, 60 fps, with stereo sound recording.

All things considered, this is an excellent camera, which is why Huawei handed out a book of professional photos taken with the device, which look superb.

Performance

The P9 feels fast and responsive. Huawei mentioned a file system optimization which increases performance but I have not got details of this.

I got a PC Mark score of 6387.

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This is ahead of the Samsung Galaxy S7, which scores 5926. Another mobile which is to hand, a budget Cubot with a quad code 1.3 GHz Mediatek, scores 3223.

On Geekbench 3 I got a score of 1725 single-core and 6087 multi-core. This compares to 2170 and 6360 for the Galaxy S7, so it falls behind slightly.

A bit more detail:

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The biggest difference versus the S7 is in the graphics. The P9’s Mali T880 is not quite the equal of the S7’s Exynos 8890 (on UK models).

Audio

A few notes on the audio side. There are a couple of annoyances, one being that the default music app is not much use to me (I use Spotify or Google Play on Android). The supplied headset is disappointing, with no rubber gel so the fit is rather insecure, and a rather bright sound with little bass. No matter, you can use your own headset; and plugging in a high-quality headset left me with no complaints.

The other good news is that the on-board speakers are remarkable. I can put the phone down, play some music, and really enjoy it. Bass is unusually good considering the lack of a proper speaker enclosure, and clarity is excellent.

Pricing

Let’s get some pricing context. The P9 is a flagship device, though from a company not perceived as a premium brand, and is priced accordingly. At £449 for the cheaper, smaller model it is about 20% less than a Samsung Galaxy S7, and about 27.5% less than an Apple iPhone 6S. It is good value considering the hardware, but not a casual purchase. Here is a table

  RAM Storage Size Screen CPU Battery Special features Price
Huawei P9 3GB 32GB 5.2″ 1920 x 1080 8-Core
2.5 GHz
3000 mAh Dual lens camera
Fingerprint
Reader
£449
Huawei P9+ 4GB 64GB 5.5″ 1920 x 1080 8-Core
2.5 GHz
3400 mAh Dual lens camera
Fingerprint
Reader
£549
Samsung
Galaxy S7
4GB 32GB 5.1″ 1440 x 2560 8-Core
2.3 GHz
3000 mAh IP68 Water resistance
Wireless charging
Gear VR
KNOX security
Fingerprint Reader
£569
Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge 4GB 32GB 5.5″ 1440 x 2560 8-Core
2.3 GHz
3600 mAh IP68 Water resistance
Wireless charging
Gear VR
KNOX security
Fingerprint Reader
£639
Apple iPhone 6S 2GB From 16GB 4.7″ 1334×750 2-Core 1.85 GHz
64-bit A9
1715 mAh Fingerprint sensor from
£539
Apple iPhone 6s Plus 2GB From 16GB 5.5″ 1920×1080 2-Core 1.85 GHz
64-bit A9
2750 mAh Fingerprint sensor from
£619
Apple iPhone SE 2GB From 16GB 4″ 1136×640 2-Core 1.85 GHz
64-bit A9
1624 mAh Fingerprint sensor from £359

The table above comes with a number of caveats. It doesn’t cover all the important specifications, it doesn’t tell you about the quality of materials or design, and some details, like the amount of storage, vary depending on the exact offer. The prices are for unlocked phones, whereas most people buy on contract. Apple’s prices tend to be higher than shown, because who wants just 16GB non-expandable storage? With 64GB the 6Se goes up to £439 and the 6S to £619.

First look conclusion

A couple of days with this phone leaves me convinced that Huawei has come up with a true high-end device at a very reasonable price. The camera is outstanding in terms of features though having been spoilt with the Lumia 1020 I would like a bit more than 12MP; I realise though that counting pixels is no way to judge a camera.

On the software side I note that the out of box experience on Android is not great, thanks to incessant permission pop-ups and confusing alternatives for things like music and email. Samsung’s apps are a bit better I think; but if you mostly live in Google apps or other favourite third-party apps, you will not care too much. Everything I have tried so far has worked.

The usefulness of the fingerprint reader is a pleasant surprise, as is the sound quality from the built-in speakers.

For sure the P9 is well worth considering if you are looking for an Android mobile with great performance and an interesting camera. It is excellent value for price/performance.

I think Samsung should worry a bit, not just about Huawei, but about other Chinese vendors with aggressive marketing plans, such as Xiaomi. Apple? On the train back I spoke to a passenger using an iPhone and asked whether she would switch to a mobile that was both better (in hardware terms) and cheaper. No, she said, because everything syncs between my phone, iPad and computer. Of course she could switch to Android and get similar synching with apps from other vendors; but I got the impression she is happy to stay in Apple’s world where stuff (more or less) just works. In this respect, it doesn’t help that each Android vendor wants to make their mark with distinctive apps; for many users that is just additional complication (I have declined to set up a Huawei ID, despite being prompted).

An impressive device though, and a clear statement of intent from Huawei.

Microsoft’s story continues: Windows down, cloud up in financials Oct-Dec 2015

Microsoft has reported its latest financial results, for the quarter ending December 31st 2015.

Here are the latest figures (see end of post for what is in the segments):

Quarter ending  December 31st 2015 vs quarter ending December 31st 2014, $millions

Segment Revenue Change Operating income Change
Productivity and Business Processes 6690 -132 6460 -528
Intelligent Cloud 6343 +302 4977 +272
More Personal Computing 12660 -622 3542 +528
Corporate and Other -1897 -2222 -1897 -1980

A few points to note.

Revenue is down: Revenue overall was $million 23.8, $million 2.67 down on the same quarter in 2014. This is because cloud revenue has increased by less than personal computing has declined. The segments are rather opaque. We have to look at Microsoft’s comments on its results to get a better picture of how the company’s business is changing.

Windows: Revenue down 5% “due primarily to lower phone and Windows revenue and negative impact from foreign currency”.

Windows 10: Not much said about this specifically, except that search revenue grew 21% overall, and “nearly 30% of search revenue in the month of December was driven by Windows 10 devices.” That enforced Cortana/Bing search integration is beginning to pay off.

Surface: Revenue up 29%, but not enough to offset a 49% decline in phone revenue.

Azure: Azure revenue grew 140%, compute usage doubled year on year, Azure SQL database usage increased by 5 times year on year.

Office 365: 59% growth in commercial seats.

Server products: Revenue is up 5% after allowing for currency movements.

Xbox: Xbox Live revenue is growing (up 30% year on year) but hardware revenue declined, by how much is undisclosed. Microsoft attributes this to “lower volumes of Xbox 360” which is lame considering that the shiny Xbox One is also available.

Further observations

This is a continuing story of cloud growth and consumer decline, with Microsoft’s traditional business market somewhere in between. The slow, or not so slow, death of Windows Phone is sad to see; Microsoft’s dismal handling of its Nokia acquisition is among its biggest mis-steps and hugely costly.

CEO Satya Nadella came from the server side of the business and seems to be shaping the company in that direction, if he had any choice.

Azure and Office 365 are its big success stories. Nadella said in the earnings call that “the enterprise cloud opportunity is massive, larger than any market we’ve ever participated in.”

A reminder of Microsoft’s segments:

Productivity and Business Processes: Office, both commercial and consumer, including retail sales, volume licenses, Office 365, Exchange, SharePoint, Skype for Business, Skype consumer, OneDrive, Outlook.com. Microsoft Dynamics including Dynamics CRM, Dynamics ERP, both online and on-premises sales.

Intelligent Cloud: Server products not mentioned above, including Windows server, SQL Server, Visual Studio, System Center, as well as Microsoft Azure.

More Personal Computing: What a daft name, more than what? Still, this includes Windows in all its non-server forms, Windows Phone both hardware and licenses, Surface hardware, gaming including Xbox, Xbox Live, and search advertising.

Microsoft financials April-June 2015: loss from Nokia write-down, comments on future direction

Microsoft has reported its financials for its fourth quarter. The company made a loss of over three billion dollars ($bn 3.195) but this was because of an eight billion dollar write-down mostly on the phone business – in effect, writing off the value of its Nokia acquisition. It still has plenty of cash in the bank – over $96 bn according to its balance sheet. Perhaps it is too easy for companies of this size to make bad business decisions (I leave open whether it was the acquisition or the way it was handled that was the bad decision, but one of them was).

Here are the latest figures:

Quarter ending  June 30th 2015 vs quarter ending June 30th 2014, $millions

Segment Revenue Change Gross margin Change
Devices and Consumer Licensing 3233 -1670 2966 -1555
Computing and Gaming Hardware 1933 +591 435 +417
Phone Hardware 1234 -748 -104 -158
Devices and Consumer Other 2300 +538 594 +303
Commercial Licensing 10451 -782 9529 -769
Commercial Other 3076 +814 1350 +659

A few points to note. The confusing segment names are summarised at the end of this post. Revenue was slightly down quarter on quarter, from $bn 23.4 to 22.2, largely because of a decline in consumer Windows (weak PC sales). Commercial licensing was also down, which Microsoft attributes to the end of the XP migration boom.

Phone aside, Microsoft’s hardware is performing well, thanks to Surface Pro 3 and Xbox One. Although Xbox One has been outsold by Sony’s PlayStation 4, it is holding its own and Microsoft says that Xbox Live usage has grown by over 30% over the year. The company says this is “deeper user engagement”; another way of looking at this is that playing games without an Xbox Live subscription is often disappointing.

Microsoft’s cloud and server projects are both growing. Business cloud revenue (Office 365, Azure and Dynamics CRM) is up 106% over the year and server products up 12%.

A bright spot is that search advertising revenue grew by 21% and Bing is expected to be profitable in the next financial year. The search wars are last year’s thing but Microsoft’s determination has won it a small but viable slice of the market. It is important because the data from search is essential for high quality predictive analysis and personalisation services, which is still a coming thing (Cortana, Siri, Google Now).

In the earnings call, CEO Satya Nadella revealed some data:

  • 15 million consumer Office 365 subscribers growing by 1 million per month
  • 50,000 new SMB customers for Office 365 per month
  • Paid seats for Dynamics CRM up 140% year on year
  • 17,000 customers for Enterprise Mobility Services (Mobile Device Management)
  • Over 100% growth in Azure both in revenue and compute usage

Of Windows 10, Nadella says:

While the PC ecosystem has been under pressure recently, I do believe that Windows 10 will broaden our economic opportunity and return Windows to growth.

A short-term boost from Windows 10 would not be surprising, but does he think that Microsoft can reverse the trend from PC to mobile, or that Windows can be successful enough in the mobile category (tablets and phones) to benefit from that trend? If the latter, perhaps destroying the Nokia acquisition was not the best move (but I must not harp on about this).

On Windows 10, Nadella described three phases:

Upgrade phase: From July 29th when free Windows 10 upgrades begin.

OEM device phase: From “the fall” when Windows 10 PCs and devices go on sale.

Enterprise upgrade phase: Piloting and deployments from January 2016

Note from the last that Windows 10 is not fully business-ready yet. Enterprise Store, OneDrive for Business client, “Project Centennial” which lets you wrap Win32 apps for Store deployment, none of these are done.

How is Microsoft hoping to grow its business? CFO Amy Hood identified three areas, in response to a question on operational expenditure:

The first one is Windows 10. The second is the first party hardware where we just had such terrific performance again this Q4. And then, finally, the third bucket was about accelerating our commercial cloud leads.

Of these, the third looks a sure bet, the other two are more speculative. Microsoft will continue to be a fascinating business to watch.

Microsoft’s segments summarised

Devices and Consumer Licensing: non-volume and non-subscription licensing of Windows, Office, Windows Phone, and “ related patent licensing; and certain other patent licensing revenue” – all those Android royalties?

Computing and Gaming Hardware: the Xbox One and 360, Xbox Live subscriptions, Surface, and Microsoft PC accessories.

Devices and Consumer Other: Resale, including Windows Store, Xbox Live transactions (other than subscriptions), Windows Phone Marketplace; search advertising; display advertising; Office 365 Home Premium subscriptions; Microsoft Studios (games), retail stores.

Commercial Licensing: server products, including Windows Server, Microsoft SQL Server, Visual Studio, System Center, and Windows Embedded; volume licensing of Windows, Office, Exchange, SharePoint, and Lync; Microsoft Dynamics business solutions, excluding Dynamics CRM Online; Skype.

Commercial Other: Enterprise Services, including support and consulting; Office 365 (excluding Office 365 Home Premium), other Microsoft Office online offerings, and Dynamics CRM Online; Windows Azure.

Windows Phone puzzles: strategy, what strategy?

Today Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella announced that 7,800 employees will be removed “primarily in our phone business” and that the company is taking a $7.6 billion “impairment charge … related to assets associated with the acquisition of the Nokia Devices and Services business.”

Time for a quick resume of the company’s troubled mobile efforts since the introduction of Windows Phone in October 2010:

October 2010: botched launch of Windows Phone. Despite much good work in the OS and user interface, Microsoft had lacklustre support from hardware partners, and focused on the consumer when its potential strength was in business integration with Office, Exchange etc. In addition, availability was poor; after the UK launch I went down to my local town centre and not one of the 4 or 5 mobile phone shops had it on sale.

February 2011: Nokia announces that Windows Phone will be its primary smartphone OS.

October 2011: First Nokia Windows Phones appeared. Lumia 800 was a nicely designed phone in some respects, but suffered from poor battery life and some quality issues.

Nevertheless, the Nokia Windows Phones were the first ones where the manufacturer made an effort to get the best from the OS and to tailor the hardware for it. In addition, Nokia brought excellent mapping and photography expertise, so that Windows Phones began to get some standout features.

11 July 2013: Launch of Nokia Lumia 1020 with an amazing 41MP camera.

September 2013: Microsoft announces that it will acquire Nokia.

An awkward period follows before the acquisition completes. It is meant to be business as usual at Nokia but of course it is not.

February 2014: Despite some progress, Windows Phone is not getting the market share Nokia needs, so CEO Stephen Elop announces the Nokia X range, Android smartphones with Google removed and replaced by Microsoft services. A curious announcement, since why would anyone buy Nokia X? It was not because Android works better than Windows Phone on low-end hardware; vendors have told me that the reverse is true. Nor does it make sense bearing in mind the Microsoft acquisition – though it will have been in the planning stage before that was decided.

April 2014: Microsoft’s Nokia acquisition completes. Elop joins Microsoft to head up devices. As soon as July, it is obvious that Microsoft will not be continuing with Nokia X.

September 2014: Microsoft announces Windows 10. “we are delivering one application platform for our developers … Windows 10 will deliver the right experience on the right device at the right time. It will be our most comprehensive platform ever,” says Windows VP Terry Myerson.

The new universal app platform is all very well, but it means that Windows Phone is now in stasis, waiting for Windows 10 before anything much can happen to it. There is a notable lack of new high-end phones. No phone since the Lumia 1020 has had a camera of equal resolution.

At the same time, part of the point of Windows 10 is to revive the application platform across phone and PC. If you remove the phone, the Universal Windows Platform is what, PC, Xbox (mainly a games console) and HoloLens? With a few Raspberry Pis and IoT devices thrown in?

17 June 2015: Elop leaves Microsoft following an executive re-shuffle.

8 July 2015: Suspicions that Microsoft is wavering in its commitment to Windows Phone (or Windows 10 Mobile) are confirmed by the announcement of major cuts to the phone business.

A few observations

Microsoft has given Nokia little chance of success following the acquisition. It is not quite a repeat of the Kin disaster (acquisition of Danger in February 2008, a strong company wrecked by its acquirers), but there are echoes. It is only a year and three months since the acquisition completed, and the phone range is in an uncomfortable “waiting for Windows 10” phase. What did the company expect, that a Microsoft halo effect would suddenly lift sales, even without distinctive new models?

Nokia did a much better job with Windows Phone than either Microsoft or its other hardware partners. Nokia’s retail presence, operator partnerships, and marketing, were all far superior.

The main reason for the failure of Windows Phone is the lack of apps and ecosystem, and the reason for that is that Microsoft was too late to launch; iOS and, more to the point, Android, were already well entrenched. The Windows Phone OS is pretty good, and superior to the competition in some respects; apps are easier to find, for example.

Another problem is that Windows Phone has been more successful in Europe than in the USA. This means that US-centric vendors perceive that Windows Phone has an even smaller market than in fact it has.

Bearing in mind that the app story is the biggest single problem for Windows Phone vendors, and that Windows 10 is intended to address that, it is puzzling that Microsoft is now writing off the phone division before Windows 10 has launched.

Nadella writes:

I am committed to our first-party devices including phones. However, we need to focus our phone efforts in the near term while driving reinvention. We are moving from a strategy to grow a standalone phone business to a strategy to grow and create a vibrant Windows ecosystem that includes our first-party device family.

The problem is that frail market confidence in Windows Phone will be further shaken by today’s announcement. Further, if Nadella thinks that Microsoft’s trusty hardware partners will step up their game if Lumia is given less investment, than he has forgotten their dismal performance first time around.

Does Microsoft need Windows Phone?

Microsoft has been investing in Android and iOS apps since Nadella’s appointment, and it may not have a choice about whether or not it needs a mobile OS, if it cannot find a market for it.

There some strategic issues though. Microsoft itself succeeded first with Windows on the desktop, and exploited its desktop presence to drive server products that integrated with Windows and shared its user interface and operating system.

Mobile operating systems are now ascendant, and if Microsoft has little or no presence in that market, it is vulnerable to its competitors exploiting their control of the client to drive users to their own services, rather than those run by Microsoft.

Therefore it seems to me that ceding the mobile market to Apple and Google is a strategic risk.