Category Archives: mobile

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.

Windows 10: Moving Windows into the mobile and app era take 2, and why Windows 8 is not so bad

I attended Microsoft’s Build conference last week where there was a big focus on Windows 10. I spent some time with the latest Build 10074 which came out last week as well attending various sessions on developing for the upcoming OS. I also spoke to Corporate VP Joe Belfiore and I recommend this interview on the Reg which says a lot about Microsoft’s approach. Note that the company is determined to appeal to Windows 7 users who largely rejected Windows 8; Windows 10 is meant to feel more familiar to them.

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That said, Microsoft is not backtracking on the core new feature in Windows 8, which is its new app platform, called the Windows Runtime (WinRT). In fact, in its latest guise as the Universal App Platform (UAP) it is more than ever at the forefront of Microsoft’s marketing effort.

Why is this? In essence, Microsoft needs a strong app ecosystem for Windows if it is to escape legacy status. That means apps which are store-delivered, run in a secure sandbox, install and uninstall easily, update automatically, and work on tablets as well as with keyboard and mouse. Interaction and data transfer between apps is managed through OS-controlled channels, called Contracts. Another advantage is that you do not need setup CDs or downloads when you get a new PC; your apps flow down automatically. When you think of it like this, the advantages are huge; but nevertheless the Windows 8 app platform largely failed. It is easy to enumerate some of the reasons:

  • Most users live in the Windows desktop and rarely transition to the “Metro” or “Modern” environment
  • Lack of Windows 7 compatibility makes the Windows 8 app platform unattractive to developers who want to target the majority of Windows users
  • Many users simply avoided upgrading to Windows 8, especially in business environments where they have more choice, reducing the size of the Windows 8 app market
  • Microsoft made a number of mistakes in its Windows 8 launch, including an uncompromising approach that put off new users (who felt, rightly, that “Metro” was forced upon them), lack of compelling first-party apps, and encouraging a flood of abysmal apps into the Store by prioritising quantity over quality

History will judge Windows 8 harshly, but I have some admiration for what Microsoft achieved. It is in my experience the most stable and best performing version of Windows, and despite what detractors tell you it works fine with keyboard and mouse. You have to learn a new way of doing a few things, such as finding apps in the Start screen, following which it works well.

The designers of Windows 8 took the view that the desktop and app environments should be separate. This has the advantage that apps appear in the environment they are designed for. Modern apps open up full-screen, desktop apps in a window (unless they are games that are designed to run full-screen). The disadvantage is that integration between the two environments is poor, and you lose one of the key benefits of Windows (from which it got its name), the ability to run multiple apps in resizable and overlapping windows.

Windows 10 takes the opposite approach. Modern apps run in a window just like desktop apps. The user might not realise that they are modern apps at all; they simply get the benefits of store delivery, isolation and so on, without having to think about it.

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This sounds good and following the failure of the first approach, it is probably the right thing for Microsoft to do. However there are a couple of problems. One is the risk of what has been called the “uncanny valley” in an app context, where apps nearly but not quite work in the way you expect, leading to a feeling of unease or confusion. Modern apps look a little bit different from true desktop apps in Windows 10, and behave a little bit different as well. Modern apps have a different lifecycle, for example, can enter a suspended state when they do not have the focus or even be terminated by the OS if the memory is needed. A minimized desktop app keeps running, but a minimized modern app is suspended, and the developer has to take special steps if you want a task to keep running in the background.

Another issue with Windows 10 is that its attempt to recreate a Windows 8 like tablet experience is currently rather odd. Windows 10 “Tablet Mode” makes all apps run full screen, even desktop apps for which this is wholly inappropriate. Here is the Snipping Tool in Tablet Mode:

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and here is the desktop Remote Desktop Connection:

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Personally I find that Tablet Mode trips me up and adds little value, even when I am using a tablet without a keyboard, so I tend not to use it at all. I would prefer the Windows 8 behaviour, where Modern apps run full screen (or in a split view), but desktop apps open in a window on the desktop. Still, it illustrates the point, which is that integrating the modern and desktop environments has a downside; it is just a different set of compromises than those made for Windows 8.

Now, I do think that Microsoft is putting a more wholehearted effort into its UAP than it did for Windows 8 modern apps (even though both run on WinRT). This time around, the Store is better, the first-party apps are better (not least because we have Office), and the merging of the Windows Phone and Xbox platforms with the PC platform gives developers more incentive to come up with apps. Windows 10 is also a free upgrade for many users which must help with adoption. Even with all this, though, Microsoft has an uphill task creating a strong modern app ecosystem for Windows, and a lot of developers will take a wait and see approach.

The other huge question is how well users will take to Windows 10. Any OS upgrade has a problem to contend with, which is that users dislike change – perhaps especially what has become the Windows demographic, with business users who are by nature cautious, and many conservative consumer users. Users are contradictory of course; they dislike change, but they like things to be made better. It will take more than a Cortana demo to persuade a contented Windows 7 user that Windows 10 is something for them.

Note that I say that in full knowledge of how much potential the modern app model has to improve the Windows experience – see my third paragraph above.

Microsoft told me in San Francisco that things including Tablet Mode are still being worked on so a little time remains. It was clear at Build that there is a lot of energy and determination behind Windows 10 and the UAP so there is still room for optimism, even though it is also obvious that Windows 10 has to improve substantially on the current preview to have a chance of meeting the company’s goals.

Quick thoughts on Surface 3 from a long-term Surface user

I’ve been using a Surface as my usual travel PC for a while now – mostly Surface Pro (the first iteration) but also Surface RT and Surface 2. Microsoft has announced Surface 3 – is that a good buy?

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Note: this is not a review of Surface 3. I intend to review it but have yet to get my hands on one.

First, a quick note on how I have got on with Surface to date. I love the compact size of the devices and the fact that I can do all my work on them. I find full-size laptops unbearably bulky now – though slim ultrabooks or small netbooks still have some appeal.

The main annoyances with my Surface Pro are the small SSD size (I have the 128GB model) and a few technical difficulties, mainly that the keyboard cover (currently the Power Cover) plays up from time to time. Sometimes it stops responding, or I get oddities like the mouse pointer going wild or keys that auto-repeat for no reason. Detaching and re-attaching the keyboard usually fixes it. Given that this is Microsoft hardware, drives and OS, I regard these bugs as disappointing.

Surface power handling is not very good. The Surface is meant to be running all the time but sleeps so that touching power turns it on or off almost instantly. That’s the idea, but sometimes it fails to sleep and I discover that it has been heating up my bag and that the battery is nearly flat. To overcome this, and to save battery, I often shut it right down or use hibernate. Hibernate is a good option – fairly quick resume, no battery usage – except that about every third resume it crashes. So I tend to do a full shutdown.

I find the power button just a little unpredictable. In other words, sometimes I press it and nothing happens. I have to try several times, or press and hold. It could be the contact or it could be something else – I don’t think it is the contact since often it works fine.

The power cover has stopped charging, after 10 months of use. It is under warranty so I plan to get it replaced, but again, disappointing considering the high cost ($199).

A few grumbles then, but I still like the device for is portability and capability. Surface Pro 2 seemed to be better that the first in every way. Surface Pro 3 I had for a week on loan; I liked it, and could see that the pen works really well although in general pens are not for me; but for me the size is a bit too big and it felt more like an ultrabook than a tablet.

What about Surface 3 then? The trade-off here is that you get better value thanks to a smaller size (good) and lower performance (bad), with an Atom processor – Intel’s low power range aimed at mobile computing – instead of the more powerful Core range. Here are some key stats, Surface 3 vs Surface Pro 3:

  Surface 3 Surface Pro 3
Display 10.8″ 12″
Weight (without cover) 622g 800g
Storage 64GB or 128GB 64GB-512GB
Processor Intel Atom x7 Intel Core i3, i5 or i7
RAM 2GB or 4GB 4GB or 8GB
Pen Available separately Included
Cameras 8MP rear, 3.5MP front 5.0MP rear, 5.0MP front

What about battery life? Microsoft quotes Surface Pro 3 as “up to 9 hours of web browsing” and Surface 3 as “up to 10 hours of video playback”. That is a double win for Surface 3, since video playback is more demanding. Anandtech measured Surface Pro 3 as 7.6 hrs light use and 3.45 hrs heavy use; the Surface 3 will fare better.

How much do you save? A snag with the Surface is that you have to buy a keyboard cover to get the best out of it, and annoyingly the cover for the Surface 3 is different from those for Surface, Surface 2 and Surface Pro, so you can’t reuse your old one.

A quick look then at what I would be paying for the Surface 3 vs Surface Pro 3 in a configuration that makes sense for me. With Surface 3, I would max out the RAM and storage, because both are rather minimal, so the cost looks like this:

Surface 3 with 4GB RAM and 128GB storage: $599
Keyboard cover: $129
Total: $728.99

Surface Pro 3 with 8GB RAM, 265GB storage, Intel Core i5, pen: $1299
Keyboard cover: $129.00
Total: $1428.99

In other words, Surface 3 is around half the price.

Will I buy a Surface 3? It does look tempting. It is a bit less powerful than my current Surface Pro and perhaps not too good with Visual Studio, but fine for Office and most general-purpose applications. Battery life looks good, but the 128GB storage limitation is annoying; you can mitigate this with an SD card, say another 128GB for around $100, but I would rather have a 256GB SSD to start with.

However, there is strong competition. An iPad Air, I have discovered, makes an excellent travel companion, especially now that Office is available, provided you have a good keyboard case such as one from Logitech; you could get an iPad Air 2 with 64GB storage and a keyboard for slightly less than a Surface 3.

The iPad comparison deserves some reflection. The iPad does have annoyances, things like lack of direct access to the file system and non-expandable storage (no USB). However I have never encountered foibles like power management not working, and as a tablet it is a better design (not just because there are abundant apps).

It is also worth noting that there is more choice in Windows tablets and convertibles than there was when Surface was first released. Some are poorly designed, but ranges like those from Asus and Lenovo are worth checking out. In a sense this is “job done” since one of the reasons for Microsoft doing Surface was to kick-start some innovation in Windows hardware.

I hope to get some hands-on with Surface 3 in the next few weeks and will of course report back.

Mobile World Congress 2015 round-up: MediaTek Helio, Samsung Galaxy S6, Boyd smell sensor, Jolla Sailfish 2.0, Alcatel OneTouch devices, ZTE eye scanning, and Ford’s electric bike

Finding time to write everything up is a struggle, so rather than risk not doing so at all, here is a quick-fire reflection on the event.

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Microsoft’s Windows 10 was part of it of course; I’ve covered this in a separate post.

I attended MediaTek’s press event. This Taiwan SoC company announced the Helio X10 64-bit 8-core chip and had some neat imaging demos. Helio is its new brand name. I was impressed with the company’s presentation; it seems to be moving quickly and delivering high-performance chips.

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Alcatel OneTouch showed me its latest range. The IDOL 3 smartphone includes a music mixing app which is good fun.

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There is also a watch of course:

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Despite using Android for its smartphones, Alcatel OneTouch says Android Wear is too heavyweight for its watches.

The Alcatel OneTouch range looks good value but availability in the UK is patchy. I was told in Barcelona that the company will address this with direct sales through its own ecommerce site, though currently this only sells accessories, and trying to get more retail presence as opposed to relying on carrier deals.

I attended Samsung’s launch of the Galaxy S6. Samsung is a special case at MWC. It has the largest exhibits and the biggest press launch (many partners attend too). It is not just about mobile devices but has a significant enterprise pitch with its Knox security piece.

So to the launch, which took place in the huge Centre de Convencions Internacional, unfortunately the other side of Barcelona from most of the other events.

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The S5 was launched at the same venue last year, and while it was not exactly a flop, sales disappointed. Will the S6 fare better?

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It’s a lovely phone, though there are a few things missing compared to the S5: no microSD slot, battery not replaceable, not water resistance. However the S6 is more powerful with its 8-core processor and 1440×2560 screen, vs quad-core and 1920×1080 in the S5. Samsung has also gone for a metal case with tough Gorilla Glass front and back, versus the plastic and glass construction of the S5, and most observers feel this gives a more premium feel to the newer smartphone.

I suspect that these details are unimportant relative to other factors. Samsung wants to compete with the iPhone, but it is hardly possible to do so, given the lock which the Apple brand and ecosystem holds on its customers. Samsung’s problem is that the cost of an excellent smartphone has come down and the perceived added value of a device at over £500 or $650 versus one for half the price is less than it was a couple of years ago. Although these prices get hidden to some extent in carrier deals, they still have an impact.

Of particular note at MWC were the signs that Samsung is falling out with Google. Evidence includes the fact that Samsung Knox, which Google and Samsung announced last year would be rolled into Android, is not in fact part of Android at Work, to the puzzlement of Samsung folk I talked to on the stand. More evidence is that Samsung is bundling Microsoft’s Office 365 with Knox, not what Google wants to see when it is promoting Google Apps.

Google owns Android and intends it to pull users towards its own services; the tension between the company and its largest OEM partner will be interesting to watch.

At MWC I also met with Imagination, which I’ve covered here.

Jolla showed its crowd-sourced tablet running Sailfish OS 2.0, which is based on the abandoned Nokia/Intel project called MeeGo. Most of its 128 employees are ex-Nokia.

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Jolla’s purpose is not so much to sell a tablet and phone, as to kick-start Sailfish which the company hopes will become a “leading digital content and m-commerce platform”. It is targeting government officials, businesses and “privacy-aware consumers”  with what it calls a “security strengthened mobile solution”. Its business model is not based on data collection, says the Jolla presentation, taking a swipe at Google, and it is both independent and European. Sailfish can run many Android apps thanks to Myriad’s Alien Dalvik runtime.

The tablet looks great and the project has merit, but what chance of success? The evidence, as far as I can tell, is that most users do not much object to their data being collected; or put another way, if they do care, it does not much affect their buying or app-using decisions. That means Sailfish will have a hard task winning customers.

China based ZTE is differentiating its smartphones with eye-scanning technology. The Grand S3 smartphone lets you unlock the device with Eyeprint ID, based on a biometric solution from EyeVerify.

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Senior Director Waiman Lam showed me the device. “It uses the retina characteristic of your eyes for authentication,” he said. “We believe eye-scanning technology is one of the most secure biometric ways. There are ways to get around fingerprint. It’s very very secure.”

Talking of sensors, I must also mention San Francisco based Boyd Sense, a startup, which has a smell sensor. I met with CEO Bruno Thuillier. “The idea we have is to bring gas technology to the mobile phone,” he said. Boyd Sense is using technology developed by partner Alpha MOS.

The image below shows a demo in which a prototype sensor is placed into a jar smelling of orange, which is detected and shown on the connected smartphone.

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What is the use of a smell sensor? What we think of as smell is actually the ability to detect tiny quantities of chemicals, so a smell sensor is a gas analyser. “You can measure your environment,” says Thuillier. “Think about air quality. You can measure food safety. You can measure beverage safety. You can also measure your breath and some types of medical condition. There are a lot of applications.”

Not all of these ideas will be implemented immediately. Measuring gas accurately is difficult, and vulnerable to the general environment. “The result depends on humidity, temperature, speed of diffusion, and many other things,” Thuillier told me.

Of course the first thing that comes to mind is testing your breath the morning after a heavy night out, to see if you are safe to drive. “This is not complicated, it is one gas which is ethanol,” says Thuillier. “This I can do easily”.

Analysing multiple gasses is more complex, but necessary for advanced features like detecting medical conditions. Thuillier says more work needs to be done to make this work in a cheap mobile device, rather than the equipment available in a laboratory.

I had always assumed that sampling blood is the best way to get insight into what is happening in your body, but apparently some believe breathe is as good or better, as well as being easier to get at.

For this to succeed, Boyd Sense needs to get the cost of the sensor low enough to appeal to smartphone vendors, and small enough not to spoil the design, as well as working on the analysis software.

It is an interesting idea though, and more innovative than most of what I saw on the MWC floor. Thuillier is hoping to bring something to the consumer market next year.

Finally, one of my favourite items at MWC this year was Ford’s electric bikes.

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Ford showed two powered bicycles at the show, both prototypes and the outcome of an internal competition. The idea, I was told, is that bikes are ideal for the last part of a journey, especially in today’s urban environments where parking is difficult. You can put your destination into an app, get directions to the car park nearest your destination, and then dock your phone to the bike for the handlebar by handlebar directions.

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I also saw a prototype delivery van with three bikes in the back. Aimed at delivery companies, this would let the driver park at a convenient spot for the next three deliveries, and have bikers zip off to drop the parcels.

Windows 10 at Mobile World Congress 2015: a quick reflection

I attended Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last week – with 93,000 attendees and 2,100 exhibitors according to the latest figures.

It was a big event for Microsoft’s new Windows. It started for me on the Saturday before, when Acer unveiled a low-end Windows Phone (write-up on the Reg). Next was Microsoft’s press conference; Stephen Elop was on stage, presenting two new mid-range Lumias as if nothing had changed since last year when he announced the now-defunct Nokia X:

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The Lumia 640 looks good value, especially in its XL guise: 5.7” 1280 x 720 display, 8GB storage plus microSD slot, 13MP camera, 4G LTE, quad-core 1.2GHz CPU, €189 ex VAT. The smaller Lumia 640 is now on presale at £169.99; we were told €139 ex VAT at MWC, so I guess the real price of the 640XL may be something like £230, though there will be deals.

These phones will ship with Windows Phone 8.1 but get Windows 10 when available.

The big Windows 10 event was elsewhere though, and not mentioned at the press conference. This was the developer event, where General Manager Todd Brix, Director of Program Management Kevin Gallo and others presented the developer story behind the new Universal App Platform (not the same as the old Universal App Platform, as I explain here).

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This was the real deal, with lots of code. There was even a hands-on session where we built our own Universal Apps in Visual Studio 2015. Note that the Visual Studio build we used featured an additional application type for Windows 10; this is not the same as a Store app in Windows 8, though both use the Windows Runtime.

As someone with hands-on experience of developing a Store app, I am optimistic that the new platform will achieve more success. It is a second attempt with a bit more maturity, and much greater effort to integrate with the Windows desktop, whereas the first iteration went out of its way not to integrate.

Much of the focus was on the Adaptive UX, creating layouts that resize intelligently on different devices. The cross-platform UI concept is controversial, with strong arguments that you only get an excellent UI if you design specifically for a device, rather than trying to make one that runs everywhere. The Universal App Platform is a bit different though, since it is all Windows Runtime. Microsoft’s pitch is that by writing to the UAP you can target desktop, Windows Phone, tablet and Xbox One, with a single code base; and without a cross-device UI this pitch would lose much of its force. Windows 7 legacy is a problem of course; but if we see Windows 10 adopted as rapidly as Windows 7 (following the Vista hiccup) this may not be a deal-breaker.

The official account of the MWC event is in Gallo’s blog post which went out on the same day. There was much more detail at the event, but Microsoft is holding this back, perhaps for its Build conference at the end of April. So in this case you had to be there.

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Aside: if you look at the publicity Microsoft got from MWC, you will note that it is mostly based on the press conference and the launch of two mid-range Lumias, hardly ground-breaking. The fact that a ton of new stuff got presented at the developer event got far less attention, though of course sharp eyes like those of Mary Jo Foley was onto it. I have a bias towards developer content; but even so, it strikes me that a session of new content that is critical to the future of Windows counts for more than a couple of new Lumias. This demonstrates the extent to which the big vendors control the news that is written about them – most of the time.

Microsoft and Salesforce: Office 365 integration in Salesforce 1

Salesforce has posted a video showing Microsoft Office 365 integration in the forthcoming version of Salesforce 1, its cloud platform and mobile app.

The demo is not in the least elaborate. It shows how a user opens the Salesforce 1 app on an iPhone:

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searches for a document on Office 365 and previews in in the app:

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taps the Word icon to edit in Word on the iPhone:

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and shares the document with a colleague:

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Not much too it; but it is the kind of workflow that makes sense to a busy executive.

This interests me for several reasons. One is that, historically, Salesforce and Microsoft are not natural partners. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff loves poking fun at the Redmond company. I remember how he spoke to the press about “Microsoft Azoon” soon after the launch of Azure. He did not believe that Microsoft grasped what cloud computing was. Of course his product also competes with Microsoft’s Dynamics CRM.

That said, Salesforce always tied in with Microsoft products like Active Directory and Outlook, because it needed to. It could be the same today, as Office 365 has grown too big to ignore, but I am sensing a little more warmth from Benioff in Microsoft’s Nadella era:

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It is also worth noting that the workflow above needs iOS Office to work well. The example edit could have been done in Office Web Apps, I guess, but the native app is a much better experience. Microsoft’s decision was: do we keep Office as a selling point for Windows, or do we try to keep Office as the document standard in cloud and mobile, as it has been on the desktop? It chose the latter path, and this kind of partnership shows the wisdom of that strategy.

Microsoft risks enterprise credibility by pushing out insecure mobile Outlook

One thing about Microsoft: it may not be the greatest for usability or convenience, but it does understand enterprise requirements around compliance and protecting corporate data.

At least, I thought it did.

That confidence has been undermined by the release yesterday of new “Outlook” mobile apps for iOS and Android.

I read the cheery blog posts from Office PM Julia White and from new Outlook GM Javier Soltero. “Now, with Outlook, you really can manage your work and personal email on your phone and tablet – as efficiently as you do on your computer,” says White.

There is a snag though. The new Outlook apps are rebadged Acompli apps, Acompli being a company acquired by Microsoft in early December 2014. Acompli, when it thought about how to create user-friendly email apps that connected to multiple accounts, came up with a solution which, as I understand it, looks like this:

  1. User gives us credentials for accessing email account
  2. We store those credentials in our cloud servers – except they are not really our servers, they are virtual machines on Amazon Web Services (AWS)
  3. Our server app grabs your email and we push it down to the app

A reasonable approach? Well, it simplifies the mobile app and means that the server component does all the hard work of dealing with multiple accounts and mail formats; and of course everything is described as “secure”.

However, there are several issues with this from a security and compliance perspective:

  1. From the perspective of the email provider, the app accessing the email is on the server, not on the device, and the server app may push the emails to multiple devices. That means no per-device access control.
  2. Storing credentials anywhere in a third-party cloud is a big deal. In the case of Exchange, they are Active Directory credentials, which means that if they were compromised, the hacker would potentially get access not only to email, but to anything for which the user has permission on that Active Directory domain.
  3. If an organisation has a policy of running servers on its own premises, it is unlikely to want credentials and email cached on the AWS cloud.

The best source of information is this post A Deeper look at Outlook on iOS and Android, and specifically, the comments. Microsoft’s Jon Orton confirms the architecture described above, which is also described in the Acompli privacy policy:

Our service retrieves your incoming and outgoing email messages and securely pushes them to the app on your device. Similarly, the service retrieves the calendar data and address book contacts associated with your email account and securely pushes those to the app on your device. Those messages, calendar events, and contacts, along with their associated metadata, may be temporarily stored and indexed securely both in our servers and locally on the app on your device. If your emails have attachments and you request to open them in our app, the service retrieves them from the mail server, securely stores them temporarily on our servers, and delivers them to the app … If you decide to sign up to use the service, you will need to create an account. That requires that you provide the email address(es) that you want to access with our service. Some email accounts (ones that use Microsoft Exchange, for example) also require that you provide your email login credentials, including your username, password, server URL, and server domain. Other accounts (Google Gmail accounts, for example) use the OAuth authorization mechanism which does not require us to access or store your password.

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The only solution offered by Microsoft is to block the new apps using Exchange ActiveSync policy rules.

The new apps do not even respect Exchange ActiveSync policies – presumably hard to enforce given the architecture described above – though Microsoft’s AllenFilush says:

Outlook is wired up to work with Active Sync policies, but it currently only supports Remote Wipe (a selective wipe of the corporate data, not a device wipe). We will be adding full support for EAS policies like PIN lock soon.

However a user remarks:

Also, i have set up a test account, and performed a remote wipe, and nothing happened. I also removed the mobile device partnership later and still able to send and receive emails.

The inability to enforce a PIN lock means that if a device is stolen, the recipient might be able simply to turn on the device and read the corporate email.

The disappointment here is that Microsoft held to a higher standard for security and compliance than its competitors, more perhaps than some realise, with things like Bitlocker encryption built into Surface and Windows Phone devices.

Now the company seems willing to throw that reputation away for the sake of getting a consumer-friendly mobile app out of the door quickly. Worse still, it has been left to the community to identify and publicise the problems, leaving admins now racing to put the necessary blocks in place. If Microsoft was determined to do this, it should at least have forewarned administrators so that corporate data could be protected.