Category Archives: twitter

Steve Ballmer shows off Windows 8 in Build keynote

Microsoft’s BUILD conference has kicked off in Redmond with a keynote featuring CEO Steve Ballmer, Developer evangelist Steven Guggenheimer, and Kevin Gallo from the Windows Phone team. There were also a few guest appearances, including Tony Garcia from Unity, a cross-platform games engine.

The company has a lot to talk about, with Windows 8 just launched – four million upgrades sold so far, we were told, which seems to me a middling OK but not great result – and Windows Phone 8 also fully announced for the first time.

The keynote opened with a performance by Jordan Rudess from Dream Theatre, enjoyable and somewhat relevant given that he has helped create two music apps for Windows 8, Morphwiz and Tachyon, which he talked briefly about and played on a Surface RT and Lenovo desktop.


Then Ballmer came on and gave what I can only describe as a hands-on tutorial in how to use Windows 8 apps. I found this odd but it was well received; my conclusion is that many people have not bothered to look closely at Windows 8, or have been put off by the Start menu issue, and much of what Ballmer showed was new to them. It was not to me, so I was not gripped by this section of the keynote.

I preferred the presentation from Steven Guggenheimer; most of what he presented is also covered here, and included the announcement of forthcoming Windows 8 apps from Disney, ESPN and Dropbox. The Dropbox announcement is particularly significant, since I have heard complaints about its absence from Surface RT, which is unable to run the usual desktop client for Dropbox. Another app that is on the way is from Twitter. Guggenheimer also described a new PayPal API for Windows Store apps.

I do wonder why key services like Dropbox and Twitter are only now announcing Windows 8 apps. Windows 8 has been available in preview versions since last year’s Build event, and has not changed that much as a developer platform.

Gallo introduced some of the new features in Windows Phone 8, and claimed that Microsoft has delivered the majority of developer requests in the new Phone SDK which is available from today. He emphasised the possibility of sharing code between Windows Phone 8 and Windows 8, using Visual Studio to ensure compatibility.

Garcia presented Unity for Windows Phone, which is potentially a big deal, since it is widely used. The demo of immersive gaming graphics on Windows Phone 8 was impressive.


Finally, Nokia’s Richard Kerris came on, mostly to announce a giveaway of the new 920 Windows Phone 8 device for Build attendees.


This raised a loud cheer as you would expect, though it may be significant that the free phone won an even warmer reception than the earlier announcement of a free Surface RT.

The cost of signing up for a Windows Phone developer account has been reduced to just $8.00 for the next few days; see here for more details.

Did Microsoft do enough in this keynote? Personally I would like to have seen more technical depth, and a more convincing presentation of why the company thinks these new devices have what it takes to take on Apple and Google. Still, this is all about partners, and the arrival of Dropbox and Twitter as Windows 8 apps, and Unity for Windows Phone 8, are all significant events.

First impressions of Google TV – get an Apple iPad instead?

I received a Google TV as an attendee at the Adobe MAX conference earlier this year; to be exact, a Logitech Revue. It is not yet available or customised for the UK, but with its universal power supply and standard HDMI connections it works OK, with some caveats.

The main snag with my evaluation is that I use a TV with built-in Freeview (over-the-air digital TV) and do not use a set top box. This is bad for Google TV, since it wants to sit between your set top box and your TV, with an HDMI in for the set top box and an HDMI out to your screen. Features like picture-in-picture, TV search, and the ability to choose a TV channel from within Google TV, depend on this. Without a set-top box you can only use Google TV for the web and apps.


I found myself comparing Google TV to Windows Media Center, which I have used extensively both directly attached to a TV, and over the network via Xbox 360. Windows Media Center gets round the set top box problem by having its own TV card. I actually like Windows Media Center a lot, though we had occasional glitches. If you have a PC connected directly, of course this also gives you the web on your TV. Sony’s PlayStation 3 also has a web browser with Adobe Flash support, as does Nintendo Wii though it is more basic.


What you get with Google TV is a small set top box – in my case it slipped unobtrusively onto a shelf below the TV, a wireless keyboard, an HDMI connector, and an IR blaster. Installation is straightforward and the box recognised my TV to the extent that it can turn it on and off via the keyboard. The IR blaster lets you position an infra-red transmitter optimally for any IR devices you want to control from Google TV – typically your set-top box.

I connected to the network through wi-fi initially, but for some reason this was glitchy and would lose the connection for no apparent reason. I plugged in an ethernet cable and all was well. This problem may be unique to my set-up, or something that gets a firmware fix, so no big deal.

There is a usability issue with the keyboard. This has a trackpad which operates a mouse pointer, under which are cursor keys and an OK button. You would think that the OK button represents a mouse click, but it does not. The mouse click button is at top left on the keyboard. Once I discovered this, the web browser (Chrome, of course) worked better. You do need the OK button for navigating the Google TV menus.

I also dislike having a keyboard floating around in the living room, though it can be useful especially for things like Gmail, Twitter or web forums on your TV. Another option is to control it from a mobile app on an Android smartphone.

The good news is that Google TV is excellent for playing web video on your TV. YouTube has a special “leanback” mode, optimised for viewing from a distance that works reasonably well, though amateur videos that look tolerable in a small frame in a web browser look terrible played full-screen in the living room. BBC iPlayer works well in on-demand mode; the download player would not install. Overall it was a bit better than the PS3, which is also pretty good for web video, but probably not by enough to justify the cost if you already have a PS3.

The bad news is that the rest of the Web on Google TV is disappointing. Fonts are blurry, and the resolution necessary to make a web page viewable from 12 feet back is often annoying. Flash works well, but Java seems to be absent.

Google also needs to put more thought into personalisation. The box encouraged me to set up a Google account, which will be necessary to purchase apps, giving me access to Gmail and so on; and I also set up the Twitter app. But typically the living room is a shared space: do you want, for example, a babysitter to have access to your Gmail and Twitter accounts? It needs some sort of profile management and log-in.

In general, the web experience you get by bringing your own laptop, netbook or iPad into the room is better than Google TV in most ways apart from web video. An iPad is similar in size to the Google TV keyboard.

Media on Google TV has potential, but is currently limited by the apps on offer. Logitech Media Player is supplied and is a DLNA client, so if you are lucky you will be able to play audio and video from something like a NAS (network attached storage) drive on your network. Codec support is limited.

In a sane, standardised world you would be able to stream music from Apple iTunes or a Squeezebox server to Google TV but we are not there yet.

One key feature of Google TV is for purchasing streamed videos from Netflix, Amazon VOD (Video on Demand) or Dish Network. I did not try this; they do not work yet in the UK. Reports are reasonably positive; but I do not think this is a big selling point since similar services are available by many other routes. 

Google TV is not in itself a DVR (Digital Video Recorder) but can control one.

All about the apps

Not too good so far then; but at some point you will be able to purchase apps from the Android marketplace – which is why attendees at the Adobe conference were given boxes. Nobody really knows what sort of impact apps for TV could have, and it seems to me that as a means of running apps – especially games – on a TV this unobtrusive device is promising.

Note that some TVs will come with Google TV built-in, solving the set top box issue, and if Google can make this a popular option it would have significant impact.

It is too early then to write it off; but it is a shame that Google has not learned the lesson of Apple, which is not to release a product until it is really ready.

Update: for the user’s perspective there is a mammoth thread on avsforum; I liked this post.

BBC iPlayer goes social

I’m just back from the BBC’s press briefing on the new iPlayer. This is a public beta. The press release is here.

The big story is that social media features are now integrated. The idea is that you can post recommendations (or otherwise) to Twitter and Facebook about programmes you are viewing, or participate in real-time chat via Microsoft Live Messenger. The Messenger feature will be delivered later than the other features; a beta is promised “later this summer.”

I was interested to see these features delivered, as I spoke to the BBC’s Anthony Rose about them at Adobe MAX in 2008 and wrote it up for The Guardian. I talked to Rose again today and asked why Twitter, Facebook and Live Messenger had been favoured above other social media services?

There are only so many hours in the day, you’ve got to start somewhere. We picked the major ones. In the case of the chat, the technical requirements are actually really high, you need presence detection, there needs to be user to user chat, and it turns out that Facebook doesn’t have that kind of presence detection. So very few platforms have the technical bits that are necessary. But absolutely we’re looking to get the others on board, we know that people are going to want it. We had a choice of ship nothing, or try and dip the toes in the water

This is in line with a theme we heard a lot about today: that the BBC will go where the users are. Devices will be supported only if they succeed in attracting a large user base. We also heard that BBC Online is narrowing its focus, and will not needlessly duplicate what third parties already do. For example, the BBC has no intention of creating its own social network, even though over a million individuals have registered a BBC ID. Rather, it will link that identity to existing social networks, initially Twitter and Facebook. At least, that’s the current strategy. The BBC is a public broadcasting service financed by a licence fee, and its strategy is partly set from above; it has changed recently and will no doubt change again.

Still, iPlayer is a superb service and one reason I am personally happy to keep paying the fee.

Buzz buzz – Google profile nonsense

Google has launched a new social media service called Buzz (as if you did not know) and I’m on it – here’s my profile.

You had better follow that link too; because whenever I visit the profile when signed into Google I see this not-too-subtle banner:


“Your profile is not yet eligible to be featured in Google search results”. This statement with its bold yellow highlighting seems intended to make me anxious, though I’m not sure why I should care about this deliberate defect in Google’s search algorithms. Having said which, it is not actually true, as a quick search verifies:


Still, let’s presume that I believe it and want to fix it. I click the link to learn more. Does it tell me how to make my profile “eligible”? Not as such. Without making any promises, Google suggests that I should add more details,

For example, include details such as the name of your hometown, your job title, where you work or go to school.

It also wants a little link exchange:

Link to your profile on another website (for instance, your blog or online photo album)

and finally

Verify your name, and get a "Verified" badge on your profile.

I’ve been round the verify circus before; if you try to do it, you wander round the near-abandoned Knol for a while before discovering that it only works, some of the time, for USA residents.

Frankly, it all seems a bit desperate. My Google profile is just as I want it already, as it happens, though I could do without the big deceitful banner.

That said, this profile nonsense does nothing to allay my sense that Google has designs on me and wants more of my personal data and internet identity than I am inclined to give.

Buzz is a hard sell for me. I like Twitter, because it is single-purpose, works well – in conjunction with one of the many desktop add-ons such as Twhirl – and I never feel that it wants to take over my life.

Still, I am buzzing now, especially since I’ve linked it to Twitter so all my tweets arrive there too. We’ll see.

Guardian ungagging demonstrates power of Twitter (again)?

This morning the Guarding reported that it had been forbidden from reporting on a question to be asked in the UK parliament:

The Guardian is prevented from identifying the MP who has asked the question, what the question is, which minister might answer it, or where the question is to be found.

The Guardian is also forbidden from telling its readers why the paper is prevented – for the first time in memory – from reporting parliament. Legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involve proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret.

The only fact the Guardian can report is that the case involves the London solicitors Carter-Ruck, who specialise in suing the media for clients, who include individuals or global corporations.

The clue was enough for others to identify the case, which involves oil traders Trafigura, and Twitter responded in style, as the following image from Trendsmap demonstrates:

A few hours later the injunction was lifted. Although there is no way to show what influence the Twitter activity had on the matter, it at least demonstrates how the real time web can publicise events that others are trying to keep hush.

One question remains. What happened to “publish and be damned”? Maybe this is now unaffordable, which remains a worry from a freedom of speech perspective.

Technorati Tags: ,,

Future of Web Apps cheers the independent Web

The Future of Web Applications conference in London is always a thought-provoking event, thanks to its diversity, independence and character. That said, it is a frustrating creature at times. The frustration on day 1 was the barely functional wi-fi, which ruined a promising interactive application called HelloApp, built with ASP.NET MVC. HelloApp would have told us who we were sitting next to, what their interests were, their twitter ID and so on. Microsoft must be disappointed since the developers, some of them more used to technologies like PHP and Ruby, said how impressed they were with the framework and Visual Studio. The poor connectivity was a shame, and a bad slip-up for a web application conference. Even the speakers had to work mostly offline – cloud devotees beware.

Ryan Carson at the Future of Web Apps London, 2009

FOWA has been at London Excel recently, but this event was back to its earlier venue of Kensington Town Hall, more crowded but a better atmosphere and easier to get to. I suspect a little downsizing, but much prefer it. Organizer Ryan Carson has his heart set on enabling start-ups, proffering business advice and uniting developers, designers and money folk, though many attendees are not in the start-up category at all. When revealing the results of a survey showing that many web app hopefuls had less then 1000 site visitors a month he shook his head despairingly “you’re never gonna build a business on that kind of traffic”.

Carson has excellent contacts and the day kicked off with Digg’s Kevin Rose on how to get those visitor numbers up – he should know if anyone does. Rose exceeded my expectations with tips on massaging your visitor egos, avoiding analysis paralysis, hanging round event parties to meet influencers even when you can’t afford to attend the event, and even how to hack the press.

After that the day was disappointingly low-key, at least until midday. Then we got Francisco Tolmasky from 280 North and it all changed. Tolmasky’s line is that we should use pure web technology but with the richness of desktop applications, and to enable this he’s put forward cappuccino, a JavaScript framework inspired by Apple’s Objective C and Cocoa – Cappuccino uses Objective-J. This now has a visual development tool (web-based of course) called Atlas, and in Tolmasky’s demo it looked superb. See here for more details.

The surprising twist is that after developers told Tolmasky that they (or their companies) were not willing to trust code to the web, 280 North came up with a desktop version of Atlas with the added ability to create desktop applications as well. I am not clear about all the runtime details, though it no doubt involves webkit, but Tolmasky’s differentiator versus alternatives like Java or Adobe AIR is that Atlas uses only web APIs.

We heard a lot at FOWA about social media, how to use it for marketing, and how to integrate it into applications. Cat Lee from Facebook gave us a breathless presentation on how simple it is to hook into Facebook Connect. It was OK but it was a sales pitch, and that never goes down well at FOWA. 

The later afternoon sessions were excellent. Bruce Lawson of Opera gave us an entertaining overview of how HTML 5 would make life easier for developers. There was nothing new here, but nevertheless a revealing moment. He showed some rich media working in HTML 5 and made the comment, jabbing at Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight, that the web was too important to place control in the hands of any one vendor. A loud and spontaneous cheer went up.

This was echoed later when Aza Raskin of Mozilla gave us a browser-centric view of social media, suggesting that the browser could broker our “social graph” by integrating with multiple identity providers. Raskin’s line: social media is too important to be in the hands of any one vendor.

The Guardian’s Chris Thorpe gave a bold presentation about how the Guardian wants to embed itself in the web through its open platform. Like most print media, the Guardian has many challenges around its future business model (disclaimer: I write for the Guardian from time to time); but Thorpe’s presentation shows that his newspaper is coming up with an intelligent response, promoting interaction and building out into the wider web rather than erecting paywalls. Having said that, maybe the Guardian will try other business models too; it is a journey into the unknown.

Overall a day for social media and the open web, and a good antidote to the more vendor-centric conferences at which I often find myself. Next week, for example, it is the Flash-centric Adobe MAX; and having heard very little about Flash at FOWA that will make an interesting contrast.

O2 router attack shows danger of staying logged in

Concerned about web security? One thing that may prove more valuable than any amount of supposed security software (anti-virus and the like) is the simple good practice of logging out of web sites at the end of each session.

Here’s the reason. Let’s say you are logged into some site – could be Facebook, or Google, or the admin screen on your router, and you’ve left checked the option that says “keep me logged in”. Then you visit some other site. The vast majority of web pages today run JavaScript code in the background, and these scripts execute on your computer, not on the web server. What if one of those scripts sends a request to a site where you are logged in? The request comes from your computer, so it looks like you to the web site. If you are unlucky, the script will be able to perform any action you could perform, but without your awareness – such as changing your password, or reading confidential information.

For this hack to work, a couple of things need to have gone wrong:

1. You are running a malicious script. This implies that the site you are visiting has been hacked, or has a vulnerability such as forum software which allows users to post content that might trigger a script. Even a link to an image in a forum post might be sufficient.

2. The site where you are logged in doesn’t make any additional checks on the source of the script. Although it is running on your computer, the HTTP request generally includes referrer data, revealing the URL of the page from which the script came. By checking this value, the site can figure out that there is something wrong. Another idea is to have unpredictable URLs for sensitive data.

Still, you’ll notice that neither of these things are under your control, whereas generally the option to log out of a site is under your control. Even that might not always be true – a developer could code a site without an option to log out – but that is unusual.

The O2 attack referenced above exploits this flaw to get into your router admin, if you are running an O2-supplied broadband router. It is a huge vulnerability, since if the router is re-configured a wide range of further attacks are possible. One example is DNS poisoning, where familiar URLs might take you to malicious destinations. It could also disable firewall protection and redirect external requests to one of your home or small business PCs – very nasty.

Here’s a couple of things that will improve security:

1. Don’t use the broadband supplier’s equipment, if it is not entirely under your control. Use your own; turn off universal pnp, change the admin password, don’t stay logged into the admin.

2. Don’t stay logged into any site which matters. Even sites which don’t appear to matter can be a security risk, if they expose passwords or security questions that you use elsewhere, for example. Personally I always log out of Facebook, Google and Twitter, for example, even though sites like these should be aware of the risks and be coded appropriately – they mostly are, but mistakes happen.

Unfortunately many sites encourage you to stay logged in, because it reduces the friction of using the site. Still, there are compromises which work. I notice with Amazon for example, that it uses cookies to give you personalized information even when not logged in, but displays password prompts with boring regularity for actions that spend money – though Amazon also advises you to log out completely if using a public or shared computer.

10 Mac alternatives to Windows utilities

I’ve been spending an extended time on the Mac in order to explore Snow Leopard. As far as possible, I’ve done all my work on the Mac since its release. The trial will be over soon … but in the meantime I’m sharing notes on some of the utilities I used for tasks I normally do on Windows, in no particular order.

1 Capturing screenshots

On Windows I press PrintScreen or Alt-PrintScreen (for the current window), then paste into an ancient copy of Paint Shop Pro 5.0 for trimming and re-sizing. No, it’s not PhotoShop, but it loads in a blink.

For the Mac I use Ctrl-Command-Shift-3 (whole screen) or Ctrl-Command-Shift-4 (selectable area) which adds a screenshot to the clipboard. Then I use the latest Preview, which has a File – New from Clipboard option. I love Preview – it has tools for further trimming and resizing, and when you save it shows the file size as you select different formats. Since I often want to minimise the size for a web page, it’s ideal.

2 Secure file transfer

I avoid FTP for security reasons, so on Windows I normally use WinSCP for secure file transfer.

On the Mac I use Fugu, and of the two I prefer it.

3 Word processing

On Windows I use Microsoft Word. On the Mac I mainly use NeoOffice, which actually felt a bit nicer than its parent, OpenOffice. I also spent some time with Word 2008 (good for compatibility, but slow) and Apple’s Pages from iWork 09. One nice feature of Pages, for journalism, is the stats window that shows the word count as you type.

4 Web browsing

I used Safari, in order to get the most complete Apple experience. I’m getting to like the Top Sites feature, though it’s hardly essential, especially the way it shows at a glance which pages have changed.

5 Sound editing

On Windows I use Audacity. On the Mac I use … Audacity, though for some reason I found it slightly less smooth.

6 Playing FLAC

Apple is still stubbornly refusing to support FLAC in iTunes or Quicktime. My solution was Songbird, a great alternative, which supports FLAC straight out of the box, or rather download.

For converting to FLAC I used MacFLAC, though I found it less than robust. I missed dbPowerAmp (Windows).

7 Remote desktop

I find Remote Desktop invaluable for managing servers. On the Mac I used the official Remote Desktop client, which worked well though it falls slightly short of the Windows version (perhaps this is a policy!).

8 Twitter

I use Twhirl on both Mac and Windows, an Adobe AIR application. One oddity (getting picky): the font spacing is slightly better on Windows. In the word Blog, for example, there is too much space between the B and the l, but only on the Mac.

9 Email

I never thought I’d say I missed Outlook, but I did. The thing is, after much experimentation I’ve found a permutation that works really well on Windows: 64-bit Windows and Outlook 2007 SP2 in online mode (only for a desktop, of course).

On the Mac I use Mail, but I’ve found it less than satisfactory even though I run Exchange 2007 with all the required configuration.

10 Blog authoring

On Windows I use Live Writer, which is superb.

On the Mac I write posts (like this one) in the WordPress online editor. I don’t like it as much, but it does the job.

11 Bridge

Now this one is a problem :-). I find JackBridge ideal for those moments when I need a break from work. It won this year’s World Champion computer bridge contest.

The Mac is not so well served, but I have trialled Bridge Baron and found it not bad at all.

Whither Microsoft Vine?

I’ve been trying Microsoft Vine. I’m not in the US so strictly outside the area of beta coverage; but the application seems to work fine.

What is Vine? It’s hard to position it, since parts of the UI suggest that it is mainly intended for communication in disasters. You install the application, set up contacts, and you can then send alerts concerning your well-being and report on “situations”. A Live Maps mash-up lets you see alerts in your local area; I’m imagining “the fire has not yet reached this part of the city”.

I find the disaster idea a bit fanciful. The world is crashing down around me, so I boot up Windows XP or Vista – the only supported operating systems so far, though Microsoft says it will add other platforms – as do all my contacts, and start interacting with Vine?

Then again, perhaps this isn’t mainly for disasters. The alerts you can show on the map include Politics, Business, Sports and Entertainment. The Post Report drop-down includes “Looking for music” as an option. Maybe Microsoft is trying to compete with Twitter after all?

Third possibility: it is a prototype, a mash-up example to promote Microsoft’s Live services, on which it depends? In that respect, it is somewhat interesting. Yet the application looks polished, and has a fully-fledged beta program; it looks like this is something Microsoft cares about and wants to promote.

There’s a blog post from the team which aims to clarify Vine’s positioning:

Microsoft Vine is not just another Social Network site or tool. It provides a way to keep track of places you care about, your friends and family and ask for and receive help. We aren’t going to compete with these other tools and we sure don’t think of ourselves as Twitter on Steroids.

Sorry, I still don’t understand. It is as if your mobile provider offered you a second phone, specially tailored for use in emergencies, but which you could use it at other times as well. But you are never going to carry two around, just in case. The provider should add the emergency features to all its phones.

So why doesn’t Microsoft just add a couple of features to Live Messenger, instead of messing around with a new client? Further, if Microsoft really wants to help in emergencies, its client should be supremely lightweight and cross-platform, the service should be one any client can easily call on, and it should be doing this in concert with all the main telecom providers, device manufacturers, and social networks. If this is a problem that needs solving, that might yield useful results.

Then again, maybe the disaster stuff is not the real purpose of Vine; maybe that is a kind of emotional marketing to get us to use it.

Personally I am allergic to applications that want to run constantly in the background and occupy a space in the notification area. Vine has to be obviously and immediately useful to warrant it; and right now I’m not getting it.

In a real emergency, I will pick up my mobile, use SMS, turn on the radio, and possibly even consult Twitter – but only because I use Twitter all the time anyway.