Category Archives: apple

On Face Unlock

Face unlock is a common feature on premium (and even mid-range) devices today. Notable examples are Apple with the iPhone X, Microsoft with Windows Hello (when fully implemented with a depth-sensing camera like Intel RealSense), and on Android phones including Samsung Galaxy S9, OnePlus 6, Huawei P20 and Honor View 10 and Honor 10 AI

I’ve been trying the Honor 10 AI and naturally enabled the Face Unlock, passing warnings that it was less secure than a PIN or password. Why less secure? It is not stated, but a typical issue is being able to log in with a picture of the normal user (this would not work with Microsoft Hello).

Security is an issue, but I was also interested in how desirable this is as a feature. So far I am not convinced. Technically it works reasonably well. It is not 100% effective, especially in either bright sunlight or dim light, but most of the time it successfully unlocks the Honor phone. It is all the more impressive because I sometimes wear glasses, and it works whether or not I am wearing them.

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I enjoyed face unlock at first, since it removes a bit of friction in day to day use. Then I came across annoyances. Sometimes the face recognition takes longer than a PIN, if the lighting conditions are not optimal, and occasionally it fails. It has introduced a touch of uncertainty to the unlock process, whereas the PIN is fully reliable and controllable. I tried the optional “wake on pick up” feature and again had a mixed experience; sometimes the the phone would light up and unlock when I did not need it.

Conclusion? It is something I can easily live without so a low priority when choosing a new phone. Whereas fingerprint unlock, now that the technology has matured to the point of high reliability, is something I still enjoy.

Chromebooks get more useful as Linux comes to Chrome OS

At Google’s IO conference under way in San Francisco, the company has announced the ability for a Chromebook to run Linux applications.

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“Support for Linux will enable you to create, test and run Android and web app for phones, tablets and laptops all on one Chromebook. Run popular editors, code in your favourite language and launch projects to Google Cloud with the command-line. Everything works directly on a Chromebook,” says product manager Ton Buckley. “Linux runs inside a virtual machine that was designed from scratch for Chromebooks. That means it starts in seconds and integrates completely with Chromebook features. Linux apps can start with a click of an icon, windows can be moved around, and files can be opened directly from apps.”

Squinting at the screen in Google’s photo, above, it looks like the Linux VM runs Debian.

Coupled with the existing ability to run Android apps, the announcement makes Chromebooks more attractive for users (and I am one of them) who would previously have found the operating system too restrictive.

Buckley presents the new feature as primarily one for developers. You will be able to build and test Android applications directly on the Chromebook. Given the operating system’s native support for Android, this should be an excellent machine for Android development.

One of the first things I would install would be Visual Studio Code, presuming it runs OK. Thanks to .NET Core, ASP.NET development should work. The LAMP stack running locally would be great for  PHP development.

Personally I would not only use it for coding though. The ability to run LibreOffice would be great, for example. There are also a ton of handy Linux utilities for admins.

Top feature: security

The key attractions of Chromebooks (aside from low prices from OEM vendors) is security. They are popular in education for this reason. They require less management than PCs because the operating system is locked down and self-patching. The new feature should not compromise security too much, because Linux runs in a VM and in the worst case resetting the VM should clear any malware – though access to user documents could make malware running in the VM quite disruptive.

Apple’s iPad Pro is another capable device with a locked down OS, but does not run Linux applications.

What about Windows? Microsoft has tried and so far failed to lock down Windows in a manner acceptable to its customers. Windows RT was the first attempt, but users found it too restrictive, partly because the Windows 8 app ecosystem was so weak. Windows S is another attempt; but progress is slow. Microsoft has also weakened the security of its modern app platform to make it more capable, even to the extent of allowing desktop applications into the Windows Store. The approach taken by Apple and Google, to design a new secure operating system and make it gradually more capable, is more viable than Microsoft’s work in the opposite direction.

Your favourite article on The Register, and what that says about technology and the media

I’m at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona and meeting people new to me who say, “who do you write for”? I’ve been struck by several separate occasions when people say, after I mention The Register, “Oh yes, I loved that Apple article”.

The piece they mean (not one of mine), is this one by Kieren McCarthy. It recounts the Reg’s efforts to attend the iPhone 7 launch; or more precisely, efforts to get Apple PR to admit that the Reg is on a “don’t invite” list and would not be able to attend.

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Why does everyone remember this piece? In short, because it is a breath of reality in a world of hype.

The piece also exposes hidden pressures that influence tech media. There are more people working in PR than in journalism, as I recall, and it is their job to attempt to manage media coverage in order to get it to reflect as closely as possible the messaging that that their customers, the tech companies, wish to put out.

Small tech companies and start-ups struggle to get any coverage and welcome almost any press interest. The giants though are in a more privileged position, none more so than Apple, for whom public interest in its news is intense. This means it can select who gets to attend its events and naturally chooses those it thinks will give the most on-message coverage.

I do not mean to imply that those favoured journalists are biased. I believe most people write what they really think. Still, consciously or unconsciously they know that if they drift too far from the vendor’s preferred account they might not get invited next time round, which is probably a bad career move.

Apple is in a class of its own, but you see similar pressures to a lesser extent with other big companies.

Another thing I’ve noticed over years of attending technology events is that the opportunities for open questioning of the most senior executives have diminished. They would rather have communication specialists answer the questions, and stay behind closed doors or give scripted presentations from a stage.

Here in Barcelona I’ve discovered the Placa de George Orwell for the first time:

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Orwell knew as well as anyone the power of the media, even though he almost certainly did not say what is now often attributed to him, “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.”

Still, as I move into a series of carefully-crafted presentations it is a thought worth keeping in front of mind.

Finally, let me note that I have never worked full-time for The Register though I have written a fair amount there over the years (the headlines by the way are usually not written by me). The more scurrilous aspect of some Reg pieces is not really me, but I absolutely identify with The Register’s willingness to allow writers to say what they think without worrying about what the vendor will think. 

Office 2016 now “built out of one codebase for all platforms” says Microsoft engineer

Microsoft’s Erik Schweibert, principal engineer in the Apple Productivity Experiences group, says that with the release of Office 2016 version 16 for the Mac, the productivity suite is now “for the first time in 20 years, built out of one codebase for all platforms (Windows, Mac, iOS, Android).”

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This is not the first time I have heard of substantial code-sharing between the various versions of Office, but this claim goes beyond that. Of course there is still platform-specific code and it is worth reading the Twitter thread for a more background.

“The shared code is all C++. Each platform has native code interfacing with the OS (ie, Objective C for Mac and iOS, Java for Android, C/C++ for Windows, etc),” says Schweibert.

Does this mean that there is exact feature parity? No. The mobile versions remain cut-down, and some features remain platform-specific. “We’re not trying to provide uniform “lowest common denominator” support across all platforms so there will always be disparate feature gaps,” he says.

Even the online version of Office shares much of the code. “Web components share some code (backend server is shared C++ compiled code, front end is HTML and script)”, Schweibert says.

There is more news on what is new in Office for the Mac here. The big feature is real-time collaborative editing in Word, Excel and PowerPoint. 

What about 20 years ago? Schweibert is thinking about Word 6 for the Mac in 1994, a terrible release about which you can read more here:

“Shipping a crappy product is a lot like beating your head against the wall.  It really does feel good when you ship a great product as a follow-up, and it really does motivate you to spend some time trying to figure out how not to ship a crappy product again.

Mac Word 6.0 was a crappy product.  And, we spent some time trying to figure out how not to do that again.  In the process, we learned a few things, not the least of which was the meaning of the term “Mac-like.”

Word 6.0 for the Mac was poor for all sorts of reasons, as explained by Rick Schaut in the post above. The performance was poor, and the look and feel was too much like the Windows version – because it was the Windows code, recompiled. “Dialog boxes had "OK" and "Cancel" exactly reversed compared to the way they were in virtually every other Mac application — because that was the convention under Windows,” says one comment.

This is not the case today. Thanks to its lack of a mobile platform, Microsoft has a strong incentive to create excellent cross-platform applications.

There is more about the new cross-platform engineering effort in the video below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Visual Studio Code: an official Microsoft IDE for Mac, Windows, Linux

Microsoft has announced Visual Studio Code, a cross-platform, code-oriented IDE for Windows, Mac and Linux, at its Build developer conference here in San Francisco.

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Visual Studio Code is partly based on the open source projects Omnisharp. It supports Intellisense code completion, GIT source code management, and debugging with break points and call stack.

I have been in San Francisco for the last few days and the dominance of the Mac is obvious. Sitting in a cafe in the Mission district I could see 10 Macs and no PCs other than my own Surface Pro. Some folk were coding too.

It follows that if Microsoft wants to make a go of cross-platform C#, and development of ASP.NET MVC web applications beyond the Windows developer community, then tooling for the Mac is important.

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Visual Studio Code is free and is available for download here.

The IDE will lack the rich features and templates of the full Visual Studio, but if it is fast and clean, some Visual Studio developers may be keen to give it a try as well.

The Watch

I am in San Francisco so naturally I looked into the Apple Store to see the Watch.

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The poor old Apple Store is stuck behind a crane and a lot of fencing but there was still a good crowd there.

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There are watches behind glass, watches you can play with that are firmly attached to the counter, and watches in drawers which you can try on under the guidance of a rep, but which are disabled (the buttons do nothing).

A few observations.

It is a lot of fun. I found it easy to navigate using the main menu (a heap of icons, as you would expect), and zooming/tapping to explore.

There are two physical buttons, the crown and a pushbutton. The pushbutton only does two things (I was told by the rep), one press for the contacts app, press and hold for Apple Pay. Can you configure this? Apparently not.

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The crown is a  select button if you push it, zoom (or something app-specific) if you spin it, and Siri if you press and hold.

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Most of the features are things you can already do with a smartphone, excepting the fitness sensors of course, but this is on your wrist and therefore handier.

Maps is useful; it might be worth it just for that.

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Note that the watch is largely a remote for an iPhone. If you don’t have an iPhone (or it is out of charge) it is not much use. The rep thought it would still tell the time but wasn’t sure.

I tried on a couple of models, one the Sports with a cheapish strap ($400; the base model is $349), and another with a stainless steel band ($700). Both were comfortable and I was especially taken with the stainless steel edition.

There are plenty of things about the gadget that are annoying. The need for daily recharging is one, the dependence on an iPhone is another. However it is elegant and delightful so I imagine all will be forgiven, among the Apple community at least.

How do I buy one? Online only, I was told, and delivery maybe in July.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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IFA 2014 report: Wearables, Windows 8 and Phone, Android TV, Amazon FireTV, lots of phones, Spotify Connect

I am just back from IFA 2014 in Berlin, perhaps the nearest European equivalent to CES in Las Vegas though smaller, less frenetic, and benefiting from the pleasant environment of Berlin in early autumn in place of Vegas glitz.

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On the eve of a major Apple event, IFA 2014 was a chance for the non-Apple tech world to impress. That said, neither Google nor Microsoft bothers to exhibit at IFA; they rely on partners to show off the products which use their stuff. The biggest exhibitor from what I could tell was Samsung, or possibly Sony which also had a huge presence.

Google subsidiary Nest did not have a stand either, though co-founder and VP of engineering Matt Rogers did give a keynote, in place of CEO Tony Fadell who is recovering from an accident. It was an odd keynote, with little new content other than the announcement of Nest device availability in Belgium, France, Ireland and the Netherlands (they are already in the US, Canada and the UK).

The Nest keynote was memorable though for this remark:

We know neighbours have to earn your trust. We should too. Buying a Nest device is a lot like trusting us with a set of keys.

A smart thermostat or smoke alarm is like a set of keys? Not really. I may be reading too much into this, but what if Nest were to move into home security? How about a security system that recognized you? Might Nest/Google one day literally have the power to unlock your door?

My main interests at IFA are computing, mobile and audio; but I also slipped into the Siemens-Electrogeräte press conference, showing off smart ovens and coffee machines. It was worth it to hear General Manager Roland Hagenbucher explain that “Home is where your app is”, describing new app control and monitoring for Siemens smart kitchens. The question: if we need an app to turn on the oven, what are the implications for mobile operating systems?

The answer is that if the apps you need are not available for a particular mobile device, it is a significant barrier to adoption. This is the difficulty for Windows Phone, for which Microsoft held a press event in Berlin last week, launching three new phones, the mid-range Lumia 830 and budget 730 (Dual Sim) and 735. Microsoft also presented an OS update code-named “Denim”, also known as Windows Phone 8.1 Update 1. Key features include a new, faster camera app; voice activation for Cortana (just say “Hey Cortana”); and the ability to organise app tiles into folders. Oh, and not forgetting the Microsoft Screen Sharing for Lumia Phones HD-10 – the little device with the long name.

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The devices look decent and there are some good things in Windows Phone; the OS itself is smooth, the Cortana digital assistance has exceeded my expectations, the prices are reasonable, and there are thoughtful touches like the detachable NFC connection coaster on the HD-10. All it lacks is momentum, and achieving that under the shadows of Android and Apple is a huge challenge.

That said, I spoke to Dan Dery, VP and CMO at Alcatel OneTouch, who told me of the company’s plans for Windows Phone OS tablets. Which is all very well, but raises questions about the flood of new Windows 8 tablets, in sizes as small as the 7” Encore Mini from Toshiba, on show at IFA.

Intel showed off its new Pentium M CPU, based on the Broadwell architecture, optimized for low power (4.5w), small size (14nm processor) and cool (no fan). In a keynote Intel also talked up the drive for wireless computing, one facet of which is the Rezence Alliance for Wireless Power. Rezence has some powerful names on its members list, including Asus, Broadcom, Canon, Dell, Lenovo, Qualcomm, Samsung and Sony. Then again, many of those companies are also members of the rival Wireless Power Consortium which backs the Qi standard, used by Nokia/Microsoft. However, in the wireless power wars I would not bet against Intel (let’s see which way Apple jumps with the iWatch).

There were countless new Android phone launches at IFA. The challenge here is differentiation; every company says its devices are innovative, but few really are. What you get for your money is constantly improving though; I cannot remember handling any smartphones that seemed really poor, which was not the case a couple of years back.

Amazon launched its FireTV video streamer in Europe; I had a brief hands-on and wrote a piece for Guardian Technology. I liked it; it is well-designed for a specific purpose, searching for and streaming a video from Amazon’s Prime Instant Video service. It does also run apps and games (there is an optional games controller) but what will sell it, for those that give it a chance, is voice search through the Bluetooth-connected remote. I veer towards sceptical when it comes to voice search, but this is a perfect use case: pick up the remote and speak into it, rather than wrestling with a living room keyboard or pecking out letters with an on-screen keyboard. With Amazon it is all about the subscription though; the aim of FireTV is to get you hooked on Prime (fast delivery as well as instant video). It is less attractive if you prefer an alternative service, though it is a good specification for the price.

Wearables were everywhere at IFA and it seemed every press conference included a watch or fitness tracker announcement (or both) – many Android, but Alcatel OneTouch made the point that its watch was lower power and faster because it does not use Android.

Acer:

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Asus:

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Alcatel OneTouch:

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Sony:

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and so on. There does seem to be a lot of “because we can” in these devices, though some use cases do make sense, such as rejecting a call by tapping your wrist, or getting notifications. Is that worth a device which needs charging once a week (my watch has a 10 year battery life)? How much do we really want to track our fitness, and what do we do when health insurance companies get hold of this data and only want to insure the best risks?

Philips showed off its Android TV:

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While bundling Android into a TV set may seem to make sense, the problem is that you will probably want to keep the TV long after the Android part has gone out of date. Another problem – well, spot the background message at the top of this screen:

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Yes, it says AntiVirus Security – FREE. Just what you always wanted in your TV.

I also took a good look/listen at the audio on display. I will post separately on Gadget Writing; but the most significant thing I spotted (ha!) is the advent of Spotify Connect (this is from Yamaha).

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The idea is that with a Spotify subscription along with Spotify Connect devices (each device must be Spotify Connect certified) you can choose what to play and where from your Spotify app, and enjoy smart features like your playlist continuing unbroken when you move from kitchen to living room to car. No chance versus Apple/Beats you might think; but look how far Spotify has come, thriving as Apple clung too long to its file download model (see here for why files are over).

Curating an app store: does Apple have it right?

No matter how much market share Android grabs: it is Apple’s App Store that started this app thing rolling. Never forget that OS vendors and phone operators tried to push app stores before Apple came in, but fragmentation, horrible user interaction design, billing issues and perplexing compatibility problems made them a dead loss for most users. Today, Apple’s mobile platform remains the most important one in many sectors.

The trade off with app stores is that you give up freedom of choice (install anything you want from anywhere) in return for a safer and better experience; software installation nasties like runtime dependencies, malware or fake download apps do not exist. At least, that is how it is meant to be, which is why some are so disappointed by Microsoft’s store.

Now Apple has offered us some limited insight into its own curation practice. It has published the top ten reasons for App rejections for the last week in August.

Aside from the generic “more information needed,” the top reason is bugs, and the next two are non-compliance with the developer terms (could mean anything) and user interfaces that are poor or too complex.

Close behind it is another key one:

Apps that contain false, fraudulent or misleading representations or use names or icons similar to other Apps will be rejected

which accounts for the main complaint about some apps that make it into Microsoft’s store.

What Apple does not tell us is the proportion of apps that are approved, either first time, or after one or two revisions.

There is little to argue about in Apple’s list of reasons to reject, except this one:

If your app doesn’t offer much functionality or content, or only applies to a small niche market, it may not be approved.

Apps without content are fair game, but why should small niche markets not be served? It does not bother me if a great app for jellyfish spotters makes it into the store.

The other factor here is that if an app store has enough high quality apps then the bad ones will be hardly visible, other than in search results. Store curation is about presentation as well as content.

Is Apple getting it right? I am not hearing much shouting from developers about the arbitrary or unknown reasons why their app was rejected, which suggests that it is, but it may be I am not listening intently enough.