Tag Archives: apple

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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Reflecting on 2013: the year of not the PC, no privacy, and the Internet of Things

In last year’s review I wrote “Android up, Apple down, Microsoft so near, so far”. Same again? The headline still rings true, though I would not write “Apple down” today. Android ended Apple’s chance of world domination in mobile, but the company continues to thrive. In some markets Apple is almost the only company that matters. Earlier this month I interviewed Gregor Lawson, the co-founder of Morphsuits, for the Guardian web site. Lawson told me about the company’s mobile app, which he regards as strategically important; it is a free app used for marketing. I did not have space to include this snippet, when I asked him whether he had plans to support Windows Phone alongside Apple iOS and Google Android:

“Oh no. We could almost get away without doing Android. For the business that we track, we have about 80% iOS.”

Simple market share figures do not tell you that. It is a matter of context.

So what did happen in 2013? Here are some headlines.

The year of not the PC

You can safely predict that 2014 will be another year of “The PC is dead” “Oh no it isn’t” exchanges, providing technical commentators with an enduring topic. The PC is not dead; it runs most businesses, it is still the best tool for Office-style productivity, it is an excellent games machine, and a fine open platform for running whatever you want. Its decline is unmistakeable though; for people who can do most of what they need on a tablet, a tablet is a better choice, removing many of the hassles associated with PC ownership and offering portability that a laptop cannot match. Sales figures show that trend and 2013 will be another year of decline for PCs and laptops.

Might that tablet run Windows 8? I will say some more about this in the Microsoft-specific section below; but in summary, there was not sign in 2013 of Windows encroaching in any meaningful way on the iOS/Android tablet market.

The shift away from the desktop is huge for the industry. It continues a trend towards cloud and device which has been obvious for several years, but of which people are now more conscious.

BlackBerry dwindles

I dug out my BlackBerry Playbook (launched in 2011) during my Christmas clear-out. It is a nice little tablet – and the QNX embedded OS on which it is based is great – but it failed in the market for all sorts of reasons, the chief one being that it is neither iOS nor Android. 2013 was the launch year for smartphones running BlackBerry 10 (also QNX based), the Z10 and the Q10, but sales have been equally disappointing. It is a shame as the company did many things right: the operating system is good, the developer evangelism and support before the launch was strong, and the handsets in my brief looks are worthy contenders; but the barriers in front of any company trying to launch a new mobile OS have so far proved too great. Those barriers are to do with app ecosystem, the de-facto lock-in among users who have already purchased apps for their current smartphone and want to carry them over, operator support and marketing, retail support and marketing, and the difficulty of competing against Apple, Google, Nokia and Microsoft. Enterprise security was meant to be the USP for BB10 devices, but there are strong mobile device management solutions for other platforms; in fact, the current wisdom is that BES 10, the BlackBerry mobile device management software which also supports iOS and Android, may now be the future of the company.

The year of no privacy

Humans are not logical creatures, which is the only way to make sense of the no-privacy story of 2013. There are two key sides to this.

One is Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing over the data capture practised by his former employer the NSA (National Security Agency), which according to his reports goes beyond what the public imagines that national security agencies do and caused much consternation and indignation around the world.

The other is the increasing amount of data captured for marketing purposes by Google, mobile operators, internet advertisers, retailers online and offline, and others, about which the public cares very little as far as I can tell. The question is: how much data are we willing to hand over in return for free services, and the answer seems to be, pretty much everything. One or two individuals care about this – Aral Balkan for example – but it is not an issue for most of the public.

I am one who is concerned about this, because data is power, and it strikes me as dangerous to put so much power in the hands of a few large corporations, which are only lightly regulated. How much it really matters is open to debate; we are sailing into the unknown.

Turning this around for a moment, for many businesses the ability to make intelligent use of what has become known as “big data” is now critical.

Wearable computing on the rise

A nod here to wearable computing, with the big story being the previews of Google Glass, embedded Android with camera, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi which is clipped to the side of your head and responds to voice control. It may or may not succeed in the market, and makes another bullet point for the Year of No Privacy, but it is a fascinating experiment with huge potential.

It is not just Google Glass. Devices like fitbit and Nike+ FuelBand monitor our movements for the purpose of fitness tracking and will become commonplace – more data, more possibilities, less privacy. Privacy aside, there is no doubting the potential of such devices to improve health, not only by encouraging exercise, but moving on into things like early warning of heart problems and better data on the effectiveness of different treatments.

The Internet of Things

Wearable computing is one facet of a wider field called the Internet of Things (IoT). I was fortunate to attend ThingMonk, a London event organised by analyst company RedMonk, which gave me several insights. 

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Claire Rowland at AlertMe.com talks UX for IoT at ThingMonk, next to an internet-connected coffee machine.

One is that IoT will change our lives, mostly in a good way. Ubiquitous small wi-fi enabled computers will get everywhere, talk to sensors, and connect with web services to make our lives mostly better. Home appliances will report service requirements to engineers before we know, moving maps on our SmartPhone will show where our bus has got to, luggage will phone home, and so on.

For businesses, IoT ability will be an important product differentiator, initially at the high end, but increasingly throughout the market in some sectors; motor vehicles is an example.

At the same time, it was evident from ThingMonk that the IoT world is full of ideas not all of which are practical and plenty of mistakes will be made.

It was also evident that lack of standards will hold back the IoT. Vendors will each prefer to use unpublished APIs and proprietary protocols, to protect their business, even though open standards and published APIs would enable more innovation and be a public benefit.

Microsoft in transition

2013 was the year Microsoft lost a CEO (Steve Ballmer announced his retirement) but failed to gain one (no successor has yet been announced). It is a difficult appointment: does Microsoft need an outsider with new ideas, or simply an insider with the ability to execute on the strategy that is already in place? My view is that the latter is likely to work out better. Oddly, the company announced strong financials despite the decline of the PC, which is why regard the tendency of the media to equate the decline of the Windows client with the decline of Microsoft puzzling at times.

Growth areas in the last set of figures were own-brand hardware (Xbox and Surface), server and tools, and cloud services including Office 365 and Azure.

It is possible that 2014 will be the year when Microsoft unveils a dreadful set of figures but I have been waiting for this a long time.

Nevertheless, Microsoft’s traditional software business is under threat, not only from PC decline but also from cloud computing. Weakness in mobile might help competitors (especially Google) promote rival cloud services.

Microsoft also needs to up its game in quality and performance. Bugs in SkyDrive on Windows 8.1 cost me data this year. I edited an article, saved it to SkyDrive, attached it to an email, but the recipient got an old version. It is extraordinary that Microsoft has yet to get sync right after so many years of trying. Another annoyance is the slowness of Microsoft web properties at times, including Bing.

As always, this will be a fascinating company to watch in 2013.

  • Can Microsoft continue to do whatever Nokia was doing right with Windows Phone, so that market share grows?
  • Will the Windows 8 “Metro” platform build some real momentum as market penetration improves?
  • What will the promised unification of phone and tablet platforms look like for developers?
  • How will Xbox One fare against PlayStation 4, given its higher price and lesser graphics power, but greater innovation with Kinect 2 and voice control?
  • At what point does growth in cloud computing mean that growth in on-premise server licenses will stall?

Twitter, Google, Facebook free services get worse

Twitter got worse in 2013. More sponsored posts and the appearance of inline images on the web site mean that for me the appeal of the controlled, short-form feed which made Twitter great has been diluted. Google search got worse in 2013, with more ads and more brand-driven results, and its insistence on putting Google+ at the centre of its services became an annoyance. Facebook too is increasingly commercial.

These are businesses after all. Overall though, it seemed that the web got more proprietary in 2013.

Social media: the good and the bad

During much of 2013 I edited a section on the Guardian web site focused on social media marketing. The opportunity to talk to many experts in the field has been illuminating. Social media is not a short-term fashion; rather, it has changed the way we interact with each other and made it richer and more public. It is also changing marketing, and not just marketing, but the way businesses engage with their customers and potential customers.

Speaking for myself, user reviews on the likes of TripAdvisor and Amazon are now a significant influence on my purchasing decisions. Despite the fact that such platforms are gamed by vendors, overall I believe I am making better decisions as a result. Whether or not I am right about that, the influence is real.

The positive aspect of social media is the opportunity it presents for businesses to be better informed and more responsive to customer needs, and the increasing power of customer opinion to influence others, resulting in better products and more responsible behaviour.

Negatively though, social media marketing means that our public interactions with friends are now invaded by brands looking for a marketing opportunity, enabled by social media platforms which are monetized by selling our personal data (though hopefully anonymized) and access to our social media feeds. When that vendor interaction is shallow and one-sided, it leaves a sour taste.

The good outweighs the bad in my opinion, though see again the note above on the Year of No Privacy.

Personal hopes for 2014

A few personal hopes for me to review this time next year:

  • A redesigned ITWriting.com, probably on a new cloud platform, as time and funds allow
  • A converged device that works for me, so a smartphone can be good enough (for my specialised purposes) as phone, camera and recording device
  • Complete my Windows 8 game; I am working on it and will write up the experience in due course!

Happy New Year!

Something Microsoft has never fixed: why Windows is slow to start up

One of the most common complaints I hear about Windows is that it is slow to start up. Everything is fine when a machine is new (especially if it is a clean install or purchased from a Microsoft store, and therefore free from foistware), but as time goes on it gets slower and slower. Even a fast PC with lots of RAM does not fix it. Slow boot is one of many factors behind the drift away from PCs to tablets, and to some extent Macs.

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As far as I can tell, the main reason PCs become slow to start is one that has been around since DOS days. Some may recall fussing about TSR – Terminate and Stay Resident – applications that would run at startup and stay in memory, possibly causing other applications to fail. Windows today is generally stable, but it is applications that run at startup that cause your PC to start slowly, as well as having some impact on performance later.

I install lots of software for testing so I suffer from this myself. This morning I took a look at what is slowing down my desktop PC. You can view them easily in Windows 8, in Task Manager – Startup tab. A few of the culprits:

  • Adobe: too much stuff, including Service Manager for Creative Suite, Creative Cloud connection, Acrobat utilities
  • Intel Desktop utilities – monitors motherboard sensors
  • Intel Rapid Storage Technology – monitors on-board RAID
  • Sync applications including SkyDrive, Dropbox, SkyDrive Pro (Groove.exe)
  • Seagate Desktop, manage your Seagate NAS (network attached storage)
  • Google stuff: Google Music Manager, Google update, some Chrome updater
  • Plantronics headset updater
  • Realtek HD Audio Manager
  • Fitbit Connect client
  • SpotifyWebHelper
  • Microsoft Zune auto-launcher
  • Microsoft Lync, famously slow to start up and connect
  • Roccat Gaming mouse settings manager
  • Flexera “Common software manager” (InstallShield updater)

Many of these applications run in order to install a notification app – these are the things that run at bottom right, in the notification area of the taskbar. Some apps install their own schedulers, like the Seagate app which lets you schedule backup tasks. Some apps are there simply to check for updates and inform you of new versions.

You can speed up Windows startup by going through case by case and disabling startup items that you do not need. Here is a useful guide. It is an unsatisfactory business though. Users have no easy way to judge whether or not a specific app is doing an important or useful task. You might break something. When you next update the application, the startup app may reappear. It is a mess.

Microsoft should have addressed this problem aggressively, years ago. It did put great effort into making Windows boot faster, but never focussed on the harder task of bringing third-parties into line. A few points:

  • If Windows had a proper notification service, many of these apps would not need to exist. In Windows 8, it does, but that is little help since most applications need to support Windows 7 and even in many cases Windows XP.
  • The notification area should be reserved for high priority applications that need to make users aware of their status at all times. The network connection icon is a good case. Printer ink levels are a bad case, aside from reminding us of the iniquity of printer vendors selling tiny ink cartridges at profiteering prices. In all cases it should be easy to stop the notification app from running via a right-click preference. The Windows 7 idea of hiding the notification icons is counter-productive: it disguises the problem but does not fix it, therefore making it worse. I always set Windows to show all notifications.
  • Many tasks should be done on application startup, not on Windows startup. Then it is under the user’s control, and if the user never or rarely runs the application, no resources are grabbed. Why do I need to know about an update, if I am not running the application? Have the application check for updates each time it runs instead.
  • It is misguided to run a process on start-up in order to speed up the first launch of the application. It may not be needed.
  • If a background process is needed, such as for synchronisation services, why not use a Windows Service, which is designed for this?
  • Windows has a scheduler built in. It works. Why write your own?

Of course it is too late now for desktop Windows. Microsoft did rethink the matter for the “Metro” personality in Windows 8, which is one reason why Windows RT is such a pleasure to use. Apple does not allow apps to run on startup in iOS, though you can have apps respond to push notifications, and that strikes me as the best approach.

Update: I should mention a feature of Windows 8 called Fast Boot (I was reminded of this by a commenter – thanks Danny). Fast Boot does a hybrid shutdown and hibernation:

Essentially a Windows 8 shutdown consists of logging off all users and then hibernating.

This is almost another subject, though relevant. Microsoft has for years sought to address the problem of slow boot by designing Windows never to switch off. There are two basic approaches:

Sleep: the computer is still on, applications are in memory, but in a low power state with screen and hard drives off.

Hibernation: the computer writes the contents of its memory to disk storage, then powers off. On startup, it reads back the memory and resumes.

My own experience is that Sleep does not work reliably long-term. It sometimes works, but sooner or later it will fail to resume and you may lose data. Another issue on portables is that the “low-power state” is not as low power as it should be, and your battery drains. These factors have persuaded me to shut down rather than sleep.

My experience of hibernation is better, though not perfect. It usually works, but occasionally fails and again you lose data.

Fast boot is a clever solution that works for some, but it is a workaround that does not address the real issue which I have outlined above: third-party and Microsoft applications that insist on automatic start-up.

2013: the web gets more proprietary. So do operating systems, mobile, everything

There may yet be an ITWriting review of the year; but in the meantime, the trend that has struck me most this year has been the steady march of permission-based, fee-charged technology during the course of the year, even though it has continued trends that were already established.

The decline of Windows and rise of iOS and Android is a great win for Unix-like operating systems over Microsoft’s proprietary Windows; but how do you get apps onto the new mobile platforms? In general, you have to go through an app store and pay a fee to Apple or Google (or maybe Amazon) for the privilege of deployment, unless you are happy to give away your app. Of course there are ways round that through jailbreaks of various kinds, but in the mainstream it is app stores or nothing.

The desktop/laptop model may be an inferior experience for users, but it is more open, in that vendors can sell software to users without paying a fee to the operating system vendor.

Microsoft though is doing its best to drive Windows down the same path. Windows Phone uses the app store model, and so does the “Metro” personality in Windows 8 – hence the name, “Windows Store apps”.

What about the free and open internet? That too is becoming more proprietary. Of course there is still nothing to stop you putting up a web site and handing out the URL; but that is not, in general, how people navigate to sites. Rather, they enter terms into a search engine, and if the search engine does not list your site near the top, you get few visitors.

In this context, I was fascinated by remarks made by Morphsuits co-founder Gregor Lawson in an interview I did for the Guardian web site. His business makes party costumes and benefits from a strong trademarked brand name. Yet he finds that he has to pay for Google ads simply to ensure that a user who types “morphsuits” into a search engine finds his site:

Yes, it is galling, it really is galling," he says. "We are top of the organic search, but we also have to pay. The reason is that some people like organic, some people like to click on ads. Google, in their infinite wisdom, are giving more and more space to the ads because they get money for the ads. So I have to pay to be in it.

It is also worth noting that when you click a link on Google, whether it is a search result or an ad, it is not a direct link to the target site. Rather, it is a link which redirects to that site after storing a database record that you clicked that link. If you are logged into Google then the search giant knows who you are; if you are not logged in, it probably knows anyway thanks to cookies, IP numbers or other tracking techniques. It does this in order to serve you more relevant ads and make more money.

Of course there are other ways to drive traffic, such as posting on Facebook or Twitter – two more proprietary platforms. As this internet properties grow and become more powerful, they change the rules in their favour (which they are entitled to do) but it does raise the question of how this story will play out over time.

For example, Lawson complains in the same interview that if he posts a message on Facebook, it will not be seen by the majority of Morphsuits fans even though they have chosen to like his Facebook page. Only if he pays for a promoted post can he reach those fans.

The power of Facebook must not be understated. One comment I heard recently is that mobile users on average now spend more time in Facebook than browsing the web and by some margin.

Twitter is better in this respect, though there as well the platform is changing, with APIs withdrawn or metered, for example, to drive users to official Twitter clients or the web site so that the user experience is controlled, ads can be delivered and so on.

These are observations, not value judgements. Users appreciate the free services they get from platforms like Google, Facebook and Twitter, and are happy to give up some freedom and share some personal data in return.

The question I suppose is how much power we are ceding to these corporations, who have the ability to make or break businesses and to favour their own businesses at the expense of others, and the potential abuse of that power at some future date.

I appreciate that most people do not seem to care much about these issues, and perhaps they are right not to care. I will give a shout out though to Aral Balkan who is aware of the issues and who created indiephone as a possible answer – an endeavour that has only small chance of success but which is at least worth noting.

Meanwhile, I expect the web, and mobile, and operating systems, to get even more proprietary in 2014 – for better or worse.

Not just Windows: even Mac sales are down

Apple has released its third quarter financial results, and they are decent: year on year revenue is up fractionally, from $35.023 billion to $35,323 billion, though profit is down from $8.8 billion to $6.9 billion.

Compared to the third quarter in 2012 though, Mac sales are 7% down though, from 4.02 million units to 3.754 million units. Revenue from the Mac has declined by 1%.

In isolation this is not a dramatic change, but the statistic is more interesting when you put it in context with what is happening with Windows PCs. Windows 8 is nearly a year old, released to manufacturing on August 1 2012 and generally available from October 26 2012.

Windows 8 has received a mixed reception, with many users reluctant to adopt the reinvented operating system, which replaces the Start menu and adds a touch-friendly tablet platform alongside the desktop user interface. So far it has done nothing to stem declining PC sales and may have accelerated the process. Gartner reports a 10.9% decline in worldwide PC sales in the second quarter of 2013  (same as Apple’s third quarter). Gartner’s figures also include Macs, though Gartner estimates only a 4.3% unit decline.

The evidence is that gains in Mac sales at the expense of Windows, which is a long-standing trend, is continuing, insofar as Mac sales have declined by less than the PC market overall. However the figures confirm that the decline in PC sales is due to fundamental changes in personal computing, in favour of tablets and other mobile devices, rather than market response to an unpopular Windows edition.

The twist here is that Windows 8 is designed for exactly that trend; and while there is plenty of scope for argument about how Microsoft has addressed it, there is little doubt that it was right to come up with a version of Windows for tablets – and one that was not a reprise of its previous stylus-based efforts.

My own view is that Windows 8 is a plausible strategy and that Microsoft should stick with it. Earlier comments on Windows RT are relevant here.

Hybrid devices that twist between laptops and tablets are not the answer though. They are transitional machines which end up too heavy and expensive to be good tablets. Many users will buy a cheaper laptop instead.

The question for Microsoft now is how much tablet market will be left by the time the Windows app ecosystem matures to the point when a Windows tablet can really compete with an iPad for usability and utility in pure slate form.

Apple has problems too. iPad sales are down by 27% from the same quarter last year, though iPhone is up 15%. The reason, I suspect, is Android.