Tag Archives: apple

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the options for a new Cocoa application:

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

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

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

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

For more details on Fire, see here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Microsoft repositions for a post-Windows client world

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is another statement that caught my eye:

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

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

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

Google I/O 2014: impressive momentum, no wow moments

I am not in San Francisco but attended Google I/O Extended in London yesterday, to hear the keynote and a couple of sessions from Google’s annual developer conference.

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I found the demographics different than most IT events I attend: a younger crowd, and plenty of start-ups and very small businesses, not at all enterprisey (is that a word?)

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The main announcements:

A new version of Android, known as Android L (I don’t know if this will expand eventually to Lollipop or Liquorice or some such). Big release  with over 5,000 new APIs, we were told (when does Android start being called bloated, I wonder?). Themes include a new visual style called Material Design (which extends also to the Web and to Chrome), and suitability for more device types including Android TV, Android Wear (smart watches) and Android Auto. A new hardware accelerated graphics API called Android Extension Pack which implements OpenGL ES for better game performance, with support from NVIDIA Tegra. Android graphics performance will be good enough for a considerable subset of the gaming community and we saw Unreal Engine demoed.

Android L does not use Dalvik, the virtual machine that runs Java code. In its place is ART (Android Runtime). This is 64-bit, so while Java code will run fine, native code will need updating.

Google is working hard to keep Android under its control, putting more features into its Play Services, the closed part of Android available only from Google and which is updated every 6 weeks, bypassing the operator obstacle to OS updates. There is also a new reference design including both hardware and software which is designed for affordable smartphones in the developing world: third parties can take this and build a decent Android mobile which should sell for under $100 as I understood it. I imagine this is designed to ward off fractured Android efforts like Microsoft’s Nokia X, aimed at the same kind of market but without Play Services.

There are new Android smart watches on the way, and we saw the inevitable demonstration of a user using voice control to the watch for ordering taxis or pizzas, getting notifications, and sending simple messages.

Voice control demos always seem to be nervous moments for presenters – will they be understood? Unfortunately that uncertainty remains for real users too, as evidenced by Xbox One Kinect which is amazing in that it often works, but fails often enough to be irritating. Voice recognition is a hard problem, not only in respect of correctly translating the command, but also in correctly detecting what is a command (if the person standing next to me shouts “Taxi please” I do not want my watch to order one for me).

The smart watch problem also parallels the TV problem. The appeal of the watch is that it is a simple glanceable device for telling the time. The appeal of the TV is that it is a simple sit-back screen where you only have to select a channel. Putting more smarts into these devices seems to make sense, but at the same time damages that core feature, unless done with extreme care.

Android TV puts the OS into your television, though Google’s messaging here is somewhat confusing in that, on the one hand, Chromecast (also known as Googlecast) means that you can use your Google device (Android or Chromebook) as the computer and the TV as the display and audio system, while on the other hand you can use Android on the TV itself as an all-in-one.

We are inching towards unified home entertainment, but with Google, Microsoft (Xbox One), Sony (PlayStation) and Apple all jostling for position it is too early to call a winner.

Material Design – Metro for Android?

We heard a lot about Material Design, which is Google’s new design style. Google borrowed plenty of buzzwords form Microsoft’s “Metro” playbook, and I heard expressions like “fast and fluid”, clean typography, signposting, and content-first. Like Metro, it also seems to have a blocky theme (we will know when the next design wave kicks in as it will have rounded corners).

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Material Design is not just for Android. You can also implement the concept in Polymer, which is a web presentation framework built on Web Components, a standard in draft at the W3C. Support for Web Components (and therefore Polymer) is already in Chrome, advancing rapidly in Mozilla Firefox, probably coming in Apple Safari, and maybe coming in Microsoft IE. However, a JavaScript library called Polyfill means that Polymer will run to some extent in any modern browser.

Whenever IE was mentioned by a presenter at Google I/O there was an awkward/knowing laugh from the audience. Think about what that means.

One of the ideas here is that with a common design concept across Android and web, developers can make web apps (and therefore Chrome apps) look and behave more like Android apps (or vice versa). Again, there is a similar concept at Microsoft, where the WinJS library lets you implement a Metro look and feel in a web app.

Microsoft may have been ahead of Google in this, but it has done the company little good in that adoption for Metro has been weak, for well-rehearsed reasons connected with the smartphone wars, legacy Windows desktop and so on. Google has less legacy weighing it down.

How good is Material Design though? Apple’s Steve Jobs once said of a new OS X design update that it was so good you want to lick it. Metro lacks that kind of appeal, and judging from yesterday’s brief samples, so does Material Design, whatever its other merits in terms of clarity and usability. It is early days though.

Business features: Samsung Knox, Office support, unlimited storage

Google announced a couple of  features aimed at business users. One is that Samsung Knox, app sandboxing and data security for business users, has been donated to Google for integration into Android. Another is that Google Docs will get the ability to edit Microsoft Office documents in their native format, removing an annoyance for users who previously had to convert documents to and from Google’s own format when exchanging them with Microsoft Office users.

This seems to be an admission that Microsoft Office is the business standard for documents, and you can take it either way – good for Google because compatibility is better, or good for Microsoft because it cements Office as the standard. There will be ifs and buts of course.

Google is also offering unlimited online storage for business users, called Drive for Work, at $10 per user per month, upping the ante for everyone in the online storage game – Microsoft, Dropbox, Box and so on.

Google’s Cloud Platform

Google showed new features in its cloud platform, with a focus on big data analytics using an approach called Cloud Dataflow. “We don’t use MapReduce any more”, said the presenter, explaining that Cloud Dataflow enables all of us to use the same technology Google uses to analyse big data.

Greg DeMichille, a director of product management for the cloud platform, appeared on stage to show features for in-browser tracing and debugging of cloud applications. I recall DeMichille being much involved in Microsoft’s version of Java back in the days of the battle with Sun; he also had a spell at Adobe getting behind Flash and Flex for developers.

No Wow moments

The Google I/O 2014 keynote impressed in terms of numbers – Android growth continues unabated – and in terms of partners lining up behind initiatives like Android TV and Android Auto. The momentum seems unstoppable and the mass market for mobile and embedded devices is Google’s to lose.

On the other hand, I did not notice any game-changing moments such as I experienced when first seeing the Chromebook, or the Google Now personalisation service. Both of those still exist, of course, but if Android will really change our lives for the better, Google could have done a better job of conveying that message.

Apple’s Swift programming language: easy coding for OS X and iOS at last?

Apple has announced a new programming language, called Swift. (There was already a language called Swift, used for parallel scripting, but Apple links to the other Swift in case you land on the wrong page. So far it looks like the other Swift has not returned the favour).

For as long as I can remember, serious Apple developers have had to use Objective-C, an object-oriented C that is not like C++. I have only dabbled in Objective-C but when I last tried it I was pleasantly surprised: memory management was no hassle and I found it productive. Nevertheless it is an intimidating language if you come from a background of, say, JavaScript or Microsoft .NET. Apple’s focus on Objective-C has left a gap for easier to use alternatives, though the main reason developers use something other than Objective-C, as far as I am aware, is for cross-platform projects. Companies such as Xamarin and Embarcadero (with Delphi) have had some success, and of course Adobe PhoneGap (or the open source Cordova) has had significant take-up for cross-platform code based on HTML and JavaScript.

I should mention that RAD (Rapid Application Development) on OS X has long been possible using the wholly-owned Filemaker, a database manager with a powerful scripting language, but this is not suitable for general-purpose apps.

Overall, it is fair to say that coding for OS X and iOS has a higher bar than for Windows because Apple has not provided anything like Microsoft’s C# or Visual Basic, type-safe languages with easy form builders that let you snap together an application in a short time, while still being powerful enough for almost any purpose. This has been a differentiator for Windows. Visual Basic is almost as old as Windows itself, and C# was introduced in 2000.

Now Apple has come up with its own equivalent. I am new to Swift as are most people outside Apple, but took a quick look at the book, The Swift Programming Language, along with the announcement details. A few highlights:

  • Swift is a type-safe language that compiles to native code using LLVM.
  • The IDE for Swift is Xcode. It supports Cocoa development (Apple’s user interface framework) via import of the existing Objective-C frameworks, which become Swift APIs via the import keyword:

import UIKit

  • You can mix Swift and Objective-C in a single project. In Objective C you can use #import to make Swift code visible and usable.
  • Swift is a C-family language and you will find familiar features like curly braces and semi-colons to terminate lines (though semi-colons are optional).
  • Swift uses reference counting for automatic memory management. There is rather complex section in the book about weak references and unowned references, to solve some of the problems inherent in reference counting.
  • Type inference is the preferred approach to declaring the type of a variable, but you can state the type if required. You can also declare constants.
  • Swift supports single inheritance for classes and multiple inheritance for protocols (protocols are more or less equivalent to interfaces in other languages).
  • There are advanced features including closures, generics, tuples, and variadic parameters. (I am not sure if “advanced” is the right word, but other languages such as C# and Java took a while to get these).
  • Swift has something like destructors which it calls deinitializers.
  • There is an interesting feature called Extensions which lets you add methods to any existing type. For example, you could extend Int with a prettyprint method and then call 3.prettyprint.
  • Swift variables are not normally nullable; they must have a value. However you can declare optional types (add a ?, such as Int?) that can be set to nil. You can also declare implicitly unwrapped optionals which can be nil, but once assigned a value cannot be nil thereafter.
  • Swift includes the AnyObject type which can represent anything.

Swift seems to me to have similar goals to Microsoft’s C#: easier and safer than C or C++, but intended for any use right up to large and complex applications. One of the best things about it is the smooth interoperability with Objective-C; this also saves Apple from having to write native Swift frameworks for its entire stack.

A smart move? I think so, though Swift is different enough from any other language that developers have some learning to do.

What difference will Swift make? Initially, not that much. Objective-C developers now have a choice and some will move over or start mixing and matching, but Swift is still single-platform and will not change the developer landscape. That said, Swift may make Apple’s platform more attractive to business developers, for whom C# or Java is currently more productive; and perhaps Apple could find ways of using Swift in places where previously you would have to use AppleScript, extending its usefulness.

If Apple developers were tempted towards Xamarin or Delphi for productivity, as opposed to cross-platform, they will probably now use Swift; but I doubt there were all that many in that particular group.

I would be interested to hear from developers though: what do you think of Swift?

Review: Nuance Dragon Dictate 4 for the Mac

There is something liberating about working without a keyboard – and I do not mean stabbing hopefully at a touch screen. Voice control means you can sit back, easily refer to books or papers,  and input text more quickly and naturally than is possible using a keyboard. Some conditions including RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) may make dictation a necessity. I use dictation for transcribing interviews and for rapid text input generally. I do not often use dictation for controlling a computer, as opposed to entering and editing text, but this is also a key feature.

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Nuance has the best voice recognition system available as far as I can tell, though my experience is mainly with Nuance Dragon NaturallySpeaking on Windows. But what about Mac users? For them, Nuance provides Dragon Dictate, which has recently been updated to version 4. It is not a port of Dragon NaturallySpeaking, but rather has its own distinctive features, though it is less comprehensive, and a glance at the Nuance forums suggests that Mac users feel a bit neglected.

Does Dragon Dictate 4 change that? The good news is that the voice recognition engine in Dragon Dictate appears to be just as good as the one in Dragon naturally speaking. The accuracy is superb though you still have to be realistic. Some recognition problems are just very difficult and the software is bound to make mistakes especially in specialist fields – mine is programming and a specialist phrase like “JIT compiler” is bound to cause an error (Dragon thinks I want “Jet compiler”). Similarly, “pull request” became “full request”. Over time you can build up a custom vocabulary, but recognition will never be 100%, so a dictation system has to handle corrections as well as original input.

Setting up Dragon Dictate involves installing the software and then letting it create a profile and doing some training so that Dragon can learn the characteristics of your voice. I highly recommend using a good quality headset since without it we cannot expect accurate recognition. I found the setup process quick and painless and was soon up and running.

Dragon Dictate has five modes:

  • Dictation Mode is what you use most of the time.
  • Spelling Mode is for spelling out problematic words. You can speak the letters naturally or use the International Radio Alphabet (Alpha Bravo Charlie etc). It is a nice feature since if you know Dragon is likely to get something wrong, you can switch to Spelling Mode, enter the difficult word, and then go back to Dictation Mode.
  • Numbers Mode is for typing numbers.
  • Command Mode is for non-dictation commands. However, commands also work in Dictation Mode. The advantage of Command Mode is that Dragon will not misinterpret your commands as text input; but there is no way to configure Dictation Mode to prevent it interpreting speech intended as text as commands. The manual suggests that you use unnatural pauses for this. For example, if you are reviewing Dragon Dictate and want to type “Command Mode”, you can say “Command [pause] Mode” and get what you want.
  • Sleep Mode puts Dragon in a resting state, so for example you can take a telephone call without Dragon trying to transcribe it.

Switching mode is easy: just speak the mode you want. If Dragon is in Sleep Mode, you can say “Wake up”.

My initial experience with Dragon Dictate 4 was not too good. The problems were not with recognition but rather with navigating and correcting existing text, which I found harder than in Dragon NaturallySpeaking on Windows. In fact my attempts to make corrections all too often ended up with more and more errors as a correction went wrong and I would be trying to correct the correction, getting increasingly frustrated.

Using Microsoft Word 2011, I experienced unexpected behaviour. For example, if I put the cursor in between two words and dictated a word to insert, sometimes the word appeared elsewhere in the text.

Another odd thing: I dictated "for example", and Dragon recognised it as "one example”. No problem: Dragon has a Recognition Window which lists alternatives when you say “correct” followed by the word you want to amend. I said "correct one” and the recognition window appeared offering "for example" as one of the choices. I selected it, but Dragon then entered “for example example” in the text. I was not offered the word “for” on its own.

Dragon Dictate 4 was rescued from a terrible review when I studied the manual. Towards the end is a section entitled “The Cache and the Golden Rule”. This explains that you should not combine the use of keyboard and mouse with dictation when editing a document. If you do, Dragon gets confused about the contents of the document and you see unexpected results. You can fix this with a special command, “Cache Document”, which tells the software to clear and rebuild the cache for the entire document.

If you are not aware of this issue, then you are likely to make increasing use of keyboard and mouse as Dragon gets it wrong, making the issue worse. That is exactly what had happened to me.

Another key point is the difference between training and correcting. If you use the Recognition Window to make a change that is not in fact a recognition fault – such as changing “good” to “excellent” – then you will confuse the voice training. Rather, you should say “Select good”, to select the word you want to change, and then say “excellent” to overtype it.

After studying the manual, I got much better results, though Dragon Dictate still occasionally seems to have a mind of its own.

Nevertheless, this fussiness is a weakness in the software. The best software works the way you want it to, rather than making the user do things a certain way. Why cannot Dragon do its cache repairs automatically in the background?

Still, what Dragon offers is of high value, and in this case if you want the best results you have to do the homework.

There are a few others things to mention. Nuance offers a free app for the iPhone that lets you use it as a remote microphone. Personally I find a headset more convenient but I guess there are scenarios where this is useful.

There are also features in Dragon Dictate aimed at general system control. I tried the MouseGrid, which overlays a grid over the entire screen and lets you zoom into the area of interest for accurate mouse control. You can also move the mouse using Up, Down and so on under voice control, and perform single, double or triple clicks.

Conclusion? The software does not feel as complete or as polished as Dragon NaturallySpeaking, but the excellent voice recognition means that this is the best available for the Mac. Recommended, but with reservations.

A close look at Word for the iPad. What is included and what is missing?

I have been having a closer look at Word for iPad. This has limited features compared to Word for Windows or Mac, but how limited?

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So far I am more impressed than disappointed. Here are some of the things that Word on the iPad does support:

Spell check with support for a range of languages including Catalan, Cherokee, two variants Chinese, Icelandic and many more.

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Tabs including left, center, right and Decimal

Paragraph styles – with some limitations. There are a range of common styles built in, such as Normal, No Spacing, Heading 1, 2 and 3, Subtitle and so on. If you edit a document including a style not on the list, it will be formatted corrected and the style is preserved, but you cannot apply it to new text.

Text boxes. You can do crazy stuff with text boxes, like word-wrapping around angled text.

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Dictionary. Select a word, hit Define, and a dictionary definition appears. You can manage dictionaries, which seem to be downloaded on demand.

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Tables. People use tables for things like formatting minutes: speaker in left column, actions in right, and so on. They work fine in Word on iPad. You can insert a table, type in the cells, and select from numerous styles including invisible gridlines.

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Track changes. You can review changes, make comments,suggest new text, approve changes made by others, and so on.

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You can change the direction of text by 90°.

You can edit headers and footers.

You can insert page numbers in a variety of formats.

You can use multiple columns. You can insert page breaks and column breaks.

You can change page orientation from portrait to landscape.

Shapes are supported, and you can type text within a shape.

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Text highlighting works.

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Bulleted and numbered lists work as expected

Footnoting works.

Word count is available, with options like whether to include footnotes, plus character count with or without spaces.

Pictures: you can insert images, resize, stretch and rotate them (though I have not found a crop function) and apply various effects.

Overall, it is impressive, more than just a lightweight word processor.

What’s missing?

So what features are missing, compared to the desktop version? I am sure the list is long, but they may be mostly things you do not use.

One notable missing feature is format support. Desktop Word supports OpenDocument (.odt) and can edit the old binary .doc format as well as the newer .docx (Office Open XML). Word for iPad can only edit .docx. It can view and convert .doc, but cannot even view .odt. Nor can you do clever stuff like importing and editing a PDF. Here are a few more omissions:

  • No thesaurus.
  • No equation editor.
  • No character map for inserting symbols – you have to know the keyboard shortcut.
  • Paragraph formatting is far richer in desktop Word, and you have the ability to create and modify paragraph styles. One thing I find annoying in Word for iPad is the inability to set space above or below a paragraph (let me know if I have missed a feature)
  • Academic features like endnotes, cross-references, index, contents, table of figures, citations.
  • Watermarks
  • Image editing – but you can do this in a separate app on the iPad
  • Captions
  • Macros and Visual Basic for Applications
  • SmartArt
  • WordArt
  • Templates
  • Special characters (you need to know where to find them on the keyboard)
  • Printing – I guess this is more of an iPad problem

Office for iPad versus Office for Surface RT

If you have Microsoft’s Surface tablet, would you rather have the equivalent of Office for iPad, touch-friendly but cut-down, or the existing Office for Surface RT? I took a sample of opinion on Twitter and most said they would rather have Office for iPad. This is Office reworked for tablet use, touch friendly in a way that desktop Office will never be.

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Then again, Office on Surface RT (VBA aside) is more or less full desktop Office and can meet needs where Office for iPad falls short.

If Microsoft is still serious about the “Metro” environment, it will need to do something similar as a Windows Store app. Matching the elegance and functionality of the iPad version will be a challenge.

I typed this on the iPad of course, using a Logitech Bluetooth keyboard. I would not have wanted to do it with the on-screen keyboard alone. However for the final post, I moved it to Windows (via SkyDrive) in order to use Live Writer. Word on the Surface has a Blog template I could have used; another missing feature I guess.

Microsoft has exceeded expectations. This would sell well in the App Store, but you need an Office 365 subscription, making it either a significant annual cost, or a nice free bonus for those using Office 365 anyway, depending on how you look at it. The real target seems to be business users, for whom Office 365 plus Apple iPad (which they were using anyway) is now an attractive proposition.

Thirty years of mainly not the Mac

It’s Mac anniversary time: 30 years since the first Macintosh (with 128K RAM) in 1984 – January 24th according to Wikipedia; Apple’s beautiful timeline is rather sketchy when it comes to details like actual dates or specs.

My first personal computer though was a hand-me-down Commodore PET 4032 with only 32K of RAM, which pre-dated the Mac by about 4 years (though not by the time I got hold of it).

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The PET was fun because it was small enough that you could learn almost everything there was to know about it though a book called The PET Revealed that listed every address and what it did. I had a word processor called Wordcraft that was excellent, provided you could live with only having one page in memory at a time; a spreadsheet called VisiCalc that was even better; and a database that was so bad that I forget its name. You could also play Space Invaders using a character-based screen; the missiles were double-dagger (ǂ)characters.

The small company that I was a little involved with at the time migrated to Macs almost as soon as they were available so I had some contact with them early on. The defining moment in my personal computer history though was when I needed to buy a new machine for a college course. What would it be?

If all the choices had cost the same, I would have purchased a Mac. My second choice, since this was a machine for work, would have been a PC clone. Both were expensive enough that I did not seriously consider them.

Instead, I bought a Jackintosh, sorry an Atari ST, with a mono 640 x 200 monitor and a second disk drive. It had the GEM graphical user interface, 512K RAM, a Motorola 68000 CPU, and built-in MIDI ports making it popular with musicians.

The ST exceeded expectations. Despite being mainly perceived as a games machine, there were some excellent applications. I settled on Protext and later That’s Write for word processing, Signum for desktop publishing, Logistix for spreadsheets, Superbase for database, the wonderful Notator for messing around with MIDI and music notation, and did some programming with GFA Basic and HiSoft C.

If I had had a Mac or PC, I would have benefited from a wider choice of business applications, but lost out on the gaming side (which I could not entirely resist). The ST had some quirks but most things could be achieved, and the effort was illuminating in the sense of learning how computers and software tick.

Despite the Mac-like UI of the Atari ST, my sense was that most Atari owners migrated to the PC, partly perhaps for cost reasons, and partly because of the PC’s culture of “do anything you want” which was more like that of the ST. The PC’s strength in business also made it a better choice in some areas, like database work.

I was also doing increasing amounts of IT journalism, and moving from ST Format to PC Format to Personal Computer World kept me mainly in the PC camp.

For many years though I have found it important to keep up with the Mac, as well as using it for testing, and have had a series of machines. I now have my desktop set up so I can switch easily between PC and Mac. I enjoy visiting it from time to time but I am not tempted to live there. It is no more productive for me than a PC, and Microsoft Office works better on a PC in my experience (no surprise) which is a factor. I miss some favourite utilities like Live Writer, dBpoweramp, and Foobar 2000.

That said, I recognise the advantages of the Mac for many users, in terms of usability, design, and fewer annoyances than Windows. Developers benefit from a UNIX-like operating system that works better with open source tools. There is still a price premium, but not to the extent there was when I picked an Atari ST instead.

Happy Anniversary Apple.

CES 2014 report: robots, smart home, wearables, bendy TV, tablets, health gadgets, tubes and horns

CES in Las Vegas is an amazing event, partly through sheer scale. It is the largest trade show in Vegas, America’s trade show city. Apparently it was also the largest CES ever: two million square feet of exhibition space, 3,200 exhibitors, 150,000 industry attendees, of whom 35,000 were from outside the USA.

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It follows that CES is beyond the ability of any one person to see in its entirety. Further, it is far from an even representation of the consumer tech industry. Notable absentees include Apple, Google and Microsoft – though Microsoft for one booked a rather large space in the Venetian hotel which was used for private meetings.  The primary purpose of CES, as another journalist explained to me, is for Asian companies to do deals with US and international buyers. The success of WowWee’s stand for app-controllable MiP robots, for example, probably determines how many of the things you will see in the shops in the 2014/15 winter season.

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The kingmakers at CES are the people going round with badges marked Buyer. The press events are a side-show.

CES is also among the world’s biggest trade shows for consumer audio and high-end audio, which is a bonus for me as I have an interest in such things.

Now some observations. First, a reminder that CEA (the organisation behind CES) kicked off the event with a somewhat downbeat presentation showing that global consumer tech spending is essentially flat. Smartphones and tablets are growing, but prices are falling, and most other categories are contracting. Converged devices are reducing overall spend. One you had a camera, a phone and a music player; now the phone does all three.

Second, if there is one dominant presence at CES, it is Samsung. Press counted themselves lucky even to get into the press conference. A showy presentation convinced us that we really want not only UHD (4K UHD is 3840 x 2160 resolution) video, but also a curved screen, for a more immersive experience; or even the best of both worlds, an 85” bendable UHD TV which transforms from flat to curved.

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We already knew that 4K video will go mainstream, but there is more uncertainty about the future connected home. Samsung had a lot to say about this too, unveiling its Smart Home service. A Smart Home Protocol (SHP) will connect devices and home appliances, and an app will let you manage them. Home View will let you view your home remotely. Third parties will be invited to participate. More on the Smart Home is here.

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The technology is there; but there are several stumbling blocks. One is political. Will Apple want to participate in Samsung’s Smart Home? will Google? will Microsoft? What about competitors making home appliances? The answer is that nobody will want to cede control of the Smart Home specifications to Samsung, so it can only succeed through sheer muscle, or by making some alliances.

The other question is around value for money. If you are buying a fridge freezer, how high on your list of requirements is SHP compatibility? How much extra will you spend? If the answer is that old-fashioned attributes like capacity, reliability and running cost are all more important, then the Smart Home cannot happen until there are agreed standards and a low cost of implementation. It will come, but not necessarily from Samsung.

Samsung did not say that much about its mobile devices. No Galaxy S5 yet; maybe at Mobile World Congress next month. It did announce the Galaxy Note Pro and Galaxy Tab Pro series in three sizes; the “Pro” designation intrigues me as it suggests the intention that these be business devices, part of the “death of the PC” theme which was also present at CES.

Samsung did not need to say much about mobile because it knows it is winning. Huawei proudly announced that it it is 3rd in smartphones after Samsung and Apple, with a … 4.8% market share, which says all you need to know.

That said, Huawei made a rather good presentation, showing off its forthcoming AscendMate2 4G smartphone, with 6.1” display, long battery life (more than double that of iPhone 5S is claimed, with more than 2 days in normal use), 5MP front camera for selfies, 13MP rear camera, full specs here. No price yet, but expect it to be competitive.

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Sony also had a good CES, with indications that PlayStation 4 is besting Xbox One in the early days of the next-gen console wars, and a stylish stand reminding us that Sony knows how to design good-looking kit. Sony’s theme was 4K becoming more affordable, with its FDR-AX100 camcorder offering 4K support in a device no larger than most camcorders; unfortunately the sample video we saw did not look particularly good.

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Sony also showed the Xperia Z1 compact smartphone, which went down well, and teased us with an introduction for Sony SmartWear wearable entertainment and “life log” capture. We saw the unremarkable “core” gadget which will capture the data but await more details.

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Another Sony theme was high resolution audio, on which I am writing a detailed piece (not just about Sony) to follow.

As for Microsoft Windows, it was mostly lost behind a sea of Android and other devices, though I will note that Lenovo impressed with its new range of Windows 8 tablets and hybrids – like the 8” Thinkpad with Windows 8.1 Pro and full HD 1920×1200 display – more details here.

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There is an optional USB 3.0 dock for the Thinkpad 8 but I commented to the Lenovo folk that the device really needs a keyboard cover. I mentioned this again at the Kensington stand during the Mobile Focus Digital Experience event, and they told me they would go over and have a look then and there; so if a nice Kensington keyboard cover appears for the Thinkpad 8 you have me to thank.

Whereas Lenovo strikes me as a company which is striving to get the best from Windows 8, I was less impressed by the Asus press event, mainly because I doubt the Windows/Android dual boot concept will take off. Asus showed the TD300 Transformer Book Duet which runs both. I understand why OEMs are trying to bolt together the main business operating system with the most popular tablet OS, but I dislike dual boot systems, and if the Windows 8 dual personality with Metro and desktop is difficult, then a Windows/Android hybrid is more so. I’d guess there is more future in Android emulation on Windows. Run Android apps in a window? Asus did also announce its own 8” Windows 8.1 tablet, but did not think it worth attention in its CES press conference.

Wearables was a theme at CES, especially in the health area, and there was a substantial iHealth section to browse around.

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I am not sure where this is going, but it seems to me inevitable that self-monitoring of how well or badly our bodies are functioning will become commonplace. The result will be fodder for hypochondriacs, but I think there will be real benefits too, in terms of motivation for exercise and healthy diets, and better warning and reaction for critical problems like heart attacks. The worry is that all that data will somehow find its way to Google or health insurance companies, raising premiums for those who need it most. As to which of the many companies jostling for position in this space will survive, that is another matter.

What else? It is a matter of where to stop. I was impressed by NVidia’s demo rig showing three 4K displays driven by a GTX-equipped PC; my snap absolutely does not capture the impact of the driving game being shown.

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I was also impressed by NVidia’s ability to befuddle the press at its launch of the Tegra K1 chipset, confusing 192 CUDA cores with CPU cores. Having said that, the CUDA support does mean you can use those cores for general-purpose programming and I see huge potential in this for more powerful image processing on the device, for example. Tegra 4 on the Surface 2 is an excellent experience, and I hope Microsoft follows up with a K1 model in due course even though that looks doubtful.

There were of course many intriguing devices on show at CES, on some of which I will report over at the Gadget Writing blog, and much wild and wonderful high-end audio.

On audio I will note this. Bang & Olufsen showed a stylish home system, largely wireless, but the sound was disappointing (it also struck me as significant that Android or iOS is required to use it). The audiophiles over in the Venetian tower may have loopy ideas, but they had the best sounds.

CES can do retro as well as next gen; the last pinball machine manufacturer displayed at Digital Experience, while vinyl, tubes and horns were on display over in the tower.

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