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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.

Google’s official Android Studio is at version 1.0

Google has released version 1.0 of Android Studio.

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This Java/Android IDE has been in preview/beta since Google IO in May. It is based on the excellent JetBrains IntelliJ IDEA.

You can get Android Studio here. It is now the official Android IDE and developers using Eclipse are encouraged to migrate – like it or not.

One of the key features is a new build system based on Gradle. Another notable features is a visual layout designer; you can toggle between visual and text modes.

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Presumably one reason for Google developing its own Android IDE is to integrate more tightly with its cloud services. There is a Google Cloud Module on offer in the IDE.

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Android development has its hassles. I seem to spend far too much time in the Android SDK Manager downloading new versions of the SDK, which is frequently updated.

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Another annoyance is that the Intel Emulator Accelerator (HAXM) is incompatible with Hyper-V, the official Windows hypervisor. You either have to uninstall Hyper-V,  or put up with a slow emulator. I would prefer it if Google/Intel/JetBrains used the standard Windows component.

Xamarin Evolve: developers enjoy the buzz around cross-platform coding with C#

“It’s like a Microsoft developer event back when they were good,” one exhibitor here at Xamarin Evolve in Atlanta told me, and I do see what he means. There is plenty of buzz, since Xamarin is just three years old as a company and growing fast; there is the sense of an emerging technology, and that developers are actually enjoying their exploration of what they can do on today’s mobile devices.

Microsoft is an engineering-led company and was more so in its early days. The same is true of Xamarin. It also also still small enough that everyone is approachable, including co-founders Miguel de Icaza and Nat Friedman. The session on what’s new in Xamarin.Mac and Xamarin.iOS was presented by de Icaza, and it is obvious that he is still hands-on with the technology and knows it inside out. Developers warm to this because they feel that the company will be responsive to their needs.

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Approachability is important, because this is a company that is delivering code at breakneck speed and bugs or known issues are not uncommon. A typical conversation with an attendee here goes like this:

“How do you find the tools?” “Oh, we like them, they are working well for us. Well, we did find some bugs, but we talked to Xamarin about them and they were fixed quickly.”

Xamarin’s tools let you write C# code and compile it for iOS, Android and Mac. If you are building for Windows Phone or Windows, you will probably use Microsoft’s tools and share non-visual C# code, though the recently introduced Xamarin Forms, a cross-platform XML language for defining a user interface, builds for Windows Phone as well as iOS and Android.

The relationship with Microsoft runs deep. The main appeal of the tools is to Microsoft platform developers who either want to use their existing C# (or now F#) skills to respond to the inevitable demand for iOS and Android clients, or to port existing C# code, or to make use of existing C# libraries to integrate with Windows applications on the server.

That said, Xamarin is beginning to appeal to developers from outside the Microsoft ecosystem and I was told that there is now demand for Xamarin to run introductory C# classes. Key to its appeal is that you get deep native integration on each platform. The word “native” is abused by cross-platform tool vendors, all of whom claim to have it. In Xamarin’s case what it means is that the user interface is rendered using native controls on each platform. There are also extensive language bindings so that, for example, you can call the iOS API seamlessly from C# code. Of course this code is not cross-platform, so developers need to work out how to structure their solutions to isolate the platform-specific code so that the app builds correctly for each target. The developers of Wordament, a casual game which started out as a Windows Phone app, gave a nice session on this here at Evolve.

Wordament has an interesting history. It started out using Silverlight for Windows Phone and Google App Engine on the server. Following outages with Google App Engine, the server parts were moved to Azure. Then for Windows 8 the team ported the app to HTML and JavaScript. Then they did a port to Objective C for iOS and Java for Android. Then they found that managing all these codebases made it near-impossible to add features. Wordament is a network game where you compete simultaneously with players on all platforms, so all versions need to keep tightly in step. So they ported to Xamarin and now it is C# on all platforms.. 

I digress. The attendees here are mostly from a Microsoft platform background, and they like the fact that Xamarin works with Visual Studio. This also means that there are plenty of Microsoft partner companies here, such as the component vendors DevExpress, Syncfusion, Infragistics and ComponentOne. It is curious: according to one of the component companies I spoke to, Microsoft platform developers get the value of this approach where others do not. They have had only limited success with products for native iOS or Android development, but now that Xamarin Forms has come along, interest is high.

Another Microsoft connection is Charles Petzold – yes, the guy who wrote Programming Windows – who is here presenting on Xamarin Forms and signing preview copies of his book on the subject. Petzold now works for Xamarin; I interviewed him here and hope to post this soon. Microsoft itself is here as well; it is the biggest sponsor and promoting Microsoft Azure along with Visual Studio.

Xamarin is not Microsoft though, and that is also important. IBM is also a big sponsor, and announced a partnership with Xamarin, offering libraries and IDE add-ins to integrate with its Worklight mobile-oriented middleware. Amazon is here, promoting both its app platform and its cloud services. Google is a sponsor though not all that visible here; Peter Friese from the company gave a session on using Google Play Services, and Jon Skeet also from Google presented a session, but it was pure C# and not Google-specific. Salesforce is a sponsor because it wants developers to hook into its cloud services no matter what tool they use; so too is Dropbox.

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Most of the Xamarin folk use Macs, and either use Xamarin Studio (a customised version of the open source MonoDevelop IDE), or Visual Studio running in a virtual machine (given that the team mostly use Macs, this seems to me the preferred platform for Xamarin development, though Visual Studio is a more advanced IDE so you will probably end up dipping in and out of Windows/Mac however you approach it).

Xamarin announced several new products here at Evolve; I gave a quick summary in a Register post. To be specific:

  • A new fast Android emulator based on Virtual Box
  • Xamarin Sketches for trying out code with immediate analysis and execution
  • Xamarin Profiler
  • Xamarin Insights: analytics and troubleshooting for deployed apps

Of these, Sketches is the most interesting. You write snippets of code and the tool not only executes it but does magic like generating a graph from sequences of data. You can use it for UI code too, trying out different fonts, colours and shapes until you get something you like. It is great fun and would be good for teaching as well; maybe Xamarin could do a version for education at a modest price (or free)?

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I am looking forward to trying out Sketches though I have heard grumbles about the preview being hard to get working so it may have to wait until next week.

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LibreOffice is four years old, plans Android version

Four years ago, on 28th September 2010, the open source LibreOffice productivity suite was created by forking OpenOffice. This Microsoft Office alternative offers a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation graphics, vector drawing package, and database manager. Its origins are in a German suite called Star Office, which was acquired by Sun Microsystems in 1999. In an effort to disrupt Microsoft, Sun made Star Office free and open source, creating OpenOffice.org. However Sun itself was acquired by Oracle Corporation in 2010, and LibreOffice was created by a breakaway group of OpenOffice contributors who were wary of what might happen to the project under Oracle’s stewardship.

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They probably need not have worried, since Oracle donated OpenOffice to the Apache foundation in 2011. It is still performing its intended function as a Microsoft disruptor; see for example this report of the Italian city of Udine moving from Microsoft Windows and Office to Linux and OpenOffice.

A key motivation is that it is easier to keep free software up to date, and organisations like having all their users on the same version:

"Some of our PCs are stuck with pretty old software like Office 2000, which is no longer supported, as we haven’t had the resources to upgrade," Gabriele Giacomini, the innovation and economic development councillor for the municipality of Udine, told ZDNet.

"By switching to open source, we will have the chance to allow our employees to work with the latest version of the suite”

Microsoft, of course, wants to address this by persuading users to subscribe to Office rather than buying it outright; though this does not solve the problem of out of date Windows versions (but watch this space).

But what about LibreOffice? What is the point of having two major open source productivity suites based on essentially the same products?

Good question; but one possible differentiator is that LibreOffice is working on an Android port. The Document Foundation, which runs the LibreOffice project, is inviting tenders for implementation of the suite on Android, complete with a basic interface for integrating with the user’s “preferred cloud storage”.

Another point of interest is that the Foundation is asking for commercial tenders rather than hiring its own coders to work with the open source community.

That said, there is already an Android port of OpenOffice, called AndrOpen Office, though this is a fork and not an official Apache OpenOffice project.

Are these multiple forks healthy proliferation, or open source confusion? That depends on your point of view, though it does show the ability of the open source community to respond to obvious needs.

It seems to me though that the suite would be more attractive to businesses if LibreOffice and OpenOffice could merge, and develop an official Android version of the suite.

My guess is that productivity software on tablets (and phablets) will be a key battleground as users do an increasing proportion of their work on mobile devices rather than PCs or laptops. Microsoft already has an iOS version of Office, and one for Android in preparation. There is also a version of Office for the Windows 8 “Metro” personality in preparation.

Open source advocate Glyn Moody has posted about the LibreOffice project here.

Android apps on Chrome: how it works and what it may become

Google announced at its I/O conference in June 2014 that Android apps are coming to its Chrome OS. Earlier this month product managers Ken Mixter and Josh Woodward announced that the first four Android apps are available in the Chromebook app store: Duolingo, Evernote, Sight Words and Vine.

I delayed posting about this until I found the time to investigate a little into how it works. I fired up an Acer C720 and installed Evernote from the Chrome web store (in addition to Evernote Web which was already installed).

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When you install your first Android app, Chrome installs the App Runtime for Chrome (Beta) (ARC) automatically.

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Incidentally, I found Evernote slightly odd on Chromebook since it is runs in a window although the app is designed to run full screen, as it would on a phone or tablet. This caught me out when I went to settings, which looks like a dialog, and closed it with the x at the top right of the window. Of course that closes the app entirely. If you want to navigate the app, you have to click the back arrow at top left of the window instead.

But what is the App Runtime for Chrome? This seems to be an implementation of the Android runtime for NaCl (Native Client), which lets you run compiled C and C++ code in the browser. If you browse the parts of ARC which are open source, you can see how it implements the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) for arch-nacl: a virtual processor running as a browser extension.

Not all of ARC is open source. The docs say:

Getting Started with ARC Open Source on Linux

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A small set of shared objects can be built which are part of ARC currently.

A fully running system cannot currently be built.

It is early days, with just four apps available, ARC in beta, and developers asked to contact Google if they are interested in having their Android apps run on Chrome OS. However, an independent developer has already ported ARC to desktop Chrome:

ARChon runtime lets you run unlimited number of Android APKs created with chromeos-apk on Chrome OS and across any desktop platform that supports Chrome.

The desktop version is unstable, and apps that need Google Play services run into problems. Still, think of it as a proof of concept.

In particular, note that this is Android Runtime for Chrome, not Android Runtime for Chrome OS. Google is targeting the browser, not the operating system. This means that ARC can, if Google chooses, become an Android runtime for every operating system where Chrome runs – with the exception, I imagine, of Chrome for iOS, which is really a wrapper for Apple’s web browser engine and cannot support NaCl, and Chrome for Android which does not need it.

Imagine that Google gets ARC running well on Windows and Mac. What are the implications?

The answer is that Android will become a cross-platform runtime, alongside others such as Flash (the engine in Adobe AIR) and Java. There has to be some performance penalty for apps written in Java for Android running in an Android VM in the browser; but NaCl runs native code and I would expect performance to be good enough.

This would make Android an even more attractive target for developers, since apps will run on desktop computers as well as on Android itself.

Might this get to the point where developers drop dedicated Windows or Mac versions of their apps, arguing that users can just run the Android version? An ARC app will be compromised not only in performance, but also in the way it integrates with the OS, so you would not expect this to happen with major apps. However, it could happen with some apps, since it greatly simplifies development.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Challenges for Embarcadero and RAD Studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More information here.

Asus bets on everything with new UK product launches for Android, Google Chromebook and Microsoft Windows

Asus unveiled its Winter 2014 UK range at an event in London yesterday. It is an extensive range covering most bases, including Android tablets, Windows 8 hybrids, Google Chromebooks, and Android smartphones.

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Asus never fails to impress with its innovative ideas – like the Padfone, a phone which docks into a tablet – though not all the ideas win over the public, and we did not hear about any new Padfones yesterday.

The company’s other strength though is to crank out well-made products at a competitive price, and this aspect remains prominent. There was nothing cutting-edge on show last night, but plenty of designs that score favourably in terms of what you get for the money.

At a glance:

  • Chromebook C200 dual-proc Intel N2830 laptop 12″ display £199.99 and C300 13″ display £239.99
  • MeMO Pad Android tablets ME176C 7″ £119 and 8″ ME181 (with faster Z3580 2.3 GHz quad-core processor) £169
  • Transformer Pad TF103C Android tablet with mobile keyboard dock (ie a tear-off keyboard) £239
  • Two FonePad 7″ Android phablets: tablets with phone functionality, LTE in the ME372CL at £129.99  and 3G in the ME175CG at £199.99.
  • Three Zenfone 3G Android phones, 4″ at £99.99, 5″ at £149.99 and 6″ at £249.99.
  • Transformer Book T200 and T300 joining the T100 (10.1″ display) as Windows 8 hybrids with tear-off keyboards. The T200 has an 11.6″ display and the T300 a 13.3″ display and processors from Core i3 to Core i7 – no longer just a budget range. The T200 starts at £349.
  • Transformer Book Flip Windows 8.1 laptops with fold-back touch screens so you can use them as fat tablets. 13.3″ or 15.6″ screens, various prices according to configuration starting with a Core 13 at £449.
  • G750 gaming laptops from £999.99 to £1799.99 with Core i7 processors and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 800M GPUs.
  • G550JK Gaming Notebook with Core i7 and GTX 850M GPU from £899.99.

Unfortunately the press event was held in a darkened room useless for photography or close inspection of the devices. A few points to note though.

The T100 is, according to Asus, the world’s bestselling Windows hybrid. This does not surprise me since with 11 hr battery life and full Windows 8 with Office pre-installed it ticks a lot of boxes. I prefer the tear-off keyboard concept to complex flip designs that never make satisfactory tablets. The T100 now seems to be the base model in a full range of Windows hybrids.

On the phone side, it is odd that Asus did not announce any operator deals and seems to be focused on the sim-free market.

How good are the Zenfones? This is not a review, but I had a quick play with the models on display. They are not high-end devices, but nor do they feel cheap. IPS+ (in-plane switching) displays give a wide viewing angle. Gorilla Glass 3 protects the screen; the promo video talks about a 30m drop test which I do not believe for a moment*. The touch screens are meant to be responsive when wearing gloves. The camera has a five-element lens with F/2.0 aperture, a low-light mode, and “time rewind” which records images before you tap. A “Smart remove” feature removes moving objects from your picture. You also get “Zen UI” on top of Android; I generally prefer stock Android but the vendors want to differentiate and it seems not to get in the way too much.

Just another phone then; but looks good value.

As it happens, I saw another Asus display as I arrived in London, at St Pancras station.

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The stand, devoted mainly to the T100, was far from bustling. This might be related to the profile of Windows these days; or it might reflect the fact that the Asus brand, for all the company’s efforts, is associated more with good honest value than something you stop to look at on the way to work.

For more details see the Asus site or have a look in the likes of John Lewis or Currys/ PC World.

*On the drop test, Asus says: “This is a drop test for the Gorilla glass, and is dropping a metal ball on to a pane of it that is clamped down, not actually a drop of the phone itself.”

Farewell Nokia X? Not quite, but the signs are clear as Microsoft bets on Universal Apps

I could never make sense of Nokia X, the Android-with-Microsoft-services device which Nokia announced less than a year ago at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona:

If Nokia X is a worse Android than Android, and a worse Windows Phone than Windows Phone, what is the point of it and why will anyone buy?

Nokia X is Android without Google’s Play Store; if Amazon struggles to persuade developers to port apps to Kindle Fire (another non-Google Android) then the task for Nokia, lacking Amazon’s ecosystem, is even harder. Now, following Microsoft’s acquisition, it makes even less sense: how can Microsoft simultaneously evangelise both Windows Phone and an Android fork with its own incompatible platform and store?

Nokia X was meant to be a smartphone at feature phone prices, or something like that, but since Windows phone runs well on low-end hardware, that argument does not stand up either.

Now Nokia X is all but dead. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella:

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Second, we are working to integrate the Nokia Devices and Services teams into Microsoft. We will realize the synergies to which we committed when we announced the acquisition last September. The first-party phone portfolio will align to Microsoft’s strategic direction. To win in the higher price tiers, we will focus on breakthrough innovation that expresses and enlivens Microsoft’s digital work and digital life experiences. In addition, we plan to shift select Nokia X product designs to become Lumia products running Windows. This builds on our success in the affordable smartphone space and aligns with our focus on Windows Universal Apps.

and former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop, now in charge of Microsoft devices:

In addition to the portfolio already planned, we plan to deliver additional lower-cost Lumia devices by shifting select future Nokia X designs and products to Windows Phone devices. We expect to make this shift immediately while continuing to sell and support existing Nokia X products.

Nadella has also announced a huge round of job cuts, mainly of former Nokia employees, around 12,500 which is roughly 50% of those who came over. Nokia’s mobile phone business is no all Windows Phone (Lumia) and Nokia X. In addition, it sells really low-end phones, the kind you can pick up for £10 at a supermarket, and the Asha range which are budget smartphones. Does Microsoft have any interest in Asha? Elop does not even mention it.

It seems then that Microsoft is focusing on what it considers strategic: Windows Phone at every price point, and Universal Apps which let developers create apps for both Windows Phone and full Windows (8 and higher) from a single code base.

Microsoft does also intend to support Android and iOS with apps, but has no need to make its own Android phones in order to do so.

My view is that Nokia did an good job with Windows Phone within the constraints of a difficult market; not perfect (the early Lumia 800 devices were buggy, for example), but better by far than Microsoft managed with any other OEM partner. I currently use a Lumia 1020 which I regard as something of a classic, with its excellent camera and general high quality.

It seems to me reassuring (from a Windows Phone perspective) that Microsoft is keeping Windows Phone engineering in Finland:

Our phone engineering efforts are expected to be concentrated in Salo, Finland (for future, high-end Lumia products) and Tampere, Finland (for more affordable devices). We plan to develop the supporting technologies in both locations.

says Elop, who also notes that Surface and Xbox teams will be little touched by today’s announcements.

Incidentally, I wrote recently about Universal Apps here (free registration required) and expressed the view that Microsoft cannot afford yet another abrupt shift in its developer platform; the continuing support for Universal Apps in the Nadella era makes that less likely.

Speculating a little, it also would not surprise me if Universal Apps were extended via Xamarin support to include Android and iOS – now that is really a universal app.

Will Microsoft add some kind of Android support to Windows Phone itself? This is rumoured, though it could be counter-productive in terms of winning over developers: why bother to create a Windows Phone app if your Android app will kind-of run?

Further clarification of Microsoft’s strategy is promised in the public earnings call on July 22nd.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Microsoft repositions for a post-Windows client world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is another statement that caught my eye:

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

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

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