3D games: gimmick or the next generation?

I’m attending NVIDIA’s GPU technology conference, and at the exhibition here I took the opportunity to view some 3D images on some Lenovo (and of course NVIDIA) kit.


I was impressed; yes you have to wear the special specs, but the results are superb. The images are more immersive and more realistic, and I can see the appeal.

I am still not sure though whether 3D games will take off. The screens are substantially more expensive, the specs are inconvenient, and there are not many games.

We have also seen how Nintendo’s 3D support in the DS was insufficient to generate much momentum.

The question then is whether 3D gaming will ever be mainstream. Looking at a high quality 3D display makes you think that it must catch on eventually; but it has a lot stacked against it.

NVIDIA CEO Jen-Hsun Huang beats the drum for GPU computing

In his keynote at the GPU Technology Conference here in Beijing NVIIDA CEO Jens-Hsun Huang presented the simple logic of GPU computing. The main constraint on computing is power consumption, he said:

Power is now the limiter of every computing platform, from cellphones to PCs and even datacenters.

CPUs are optimized for single-threaded computing and are relatively inefficient. According to Huang a CPU spends 50 times as much power scheduling instructions as it does executing them. A GPU by contrast is formed of many simple processors and is optimized for parallel processing, making it more efficient when measured in FLOP/s (Floating Point Operations per Second), a way of benchmarking computer performance. Therefore it is inevitable that computers make use of GPU computing in order to achieve best performance. Note that this does not mean dispensing with the CPU, but rather handing off processing to the GPU when appropriate.

This point is now accepted in the world of supercomputers. The computer at Chinese National Supercomputing Center in Tianjin has 14,336 Intel CPUs, 7168 Nvidia Tesla GPUs, and 2048 custom-designed 8-core CPUs called Galaxy FT-1000, and can achieve 4.7 Petaflop/s for a power consumption of 4.04 MegaWatts (million watts), as presented this morning by the center’s Vice Director Xiaoquian Zhu. This is currently the 2nd fastest supercomputer in the world.

Huang says that without GPUs the world would wait until 2035 for the first Exascale (1 Exaflop/s) supercomputer, presuming a power constraint of 20MW and current levels of performance improvement year by year, whereas by combining CPUs with GPUs this can be achieved in 2019.

Supercomputing is only half of the GPU computing story. More interesting for most users is the way this technology trickles down to the kind of computers we actually use. For example, today Lenovo announced several workstations which use NVIDIA’s Maximus technology to combine a GPU designed primarily for driving a display (Quadro) with a GPU designed primarily for GPU computing (Tesla). These workstations are aimed at design professionals, for whom the ability to render detailed designs quickly is important. The image below shows a Lenovo S20 on display here. Maybe these are not quite everyday computers, but they are still PCs. Approximate price to follow soon when I have had a chance to ask Lenovo. Update: prices start at around $4500 for an S20, with most of the cost being for the Tesla board.


GPU computing with NVIDIA in Beijing

I’m in Beijing for NVIDIA’s GPU Technology Conference; I attended last year’s event in San Jose and found it fascinating, partly because it has an academic and research flavour with a huge variety of projects on display.

This year the event is in Beijing, reflecting the level of HPC (High Performance Computing) activity in this region.



NVIDIA’s business is graphics processors, though it has expanded into the SoC (System on a chip) business with its ARM-based Tegra chipset. This conference though is focused at the other end of the scale: Tesla GPUs that are primarily designed not for driving a display, but for rapid processing using massively parallel computing.

The Tesla business is relatively small for NVIDIA; less than 5% of its overall revenue, I was told; and I was told that the company treats it partly as research and development. That said, GPU computing is coming into the mainstream and the business is expected to grow. NVIDIA’s desktop GPU cards also support GPU computing.

I recently reviewed a video format converter from Cyberlink; the product was unexceptional except that it can take advantage of GPU computing when available to speed processing when converting from one video format to another. Since I do have a suitable graphics card (though sadly not a Tesla) this made a substantial difference, converting several times faster than another format converted I tried.

Of course NVIDIA is not the only player; there is an open standard (OpenCL) for GPU computing and other GPU vendors such as AMD implement OpenCL. NVIDIA implements OpenCL but also has its own CUDA architecture, which tends to be the focus of its conference as you would expect.

More reports soon.

Silverlight 5 is done. Is Silverlight also done?

Microsoft has has announced the release of Silverlight 5.0.


Silverlight is a cross-platform, cross-browser plug-in for Windows and Mac. It is relatively small size – less than 7MB according to Microsoft, though the Mac version seems to be bigger, with a 14MB compressed setup .dmg and apparently over 100MB once installed:


Never mind, it is a fine piece of work and has considerable capabilities, including the .NET Framework, the ability to render a GUI defined in XAML, multimedia playback, and support for applications running inside the browser or on the desktop. New in version 5 is better H.264 performance, 3D graphics, and Platform Invoke support on Windows enabling trusted applications to call the native API. Another change is that in-browser applications can also run with full trust, again only on Windows. The cross-platform idea has become increasingly diluted.

If Microsoft had come up with Silverlight early in the .NET story it might have become a major application platform. As it is, while still useful in some contexts, the technology has been side-lined by new things including HTML 5 and the Windows Runtime in the forthcoming Windows 8.

While I have huge respect for the team which created Silverlight and rapidly improved it, it now looks a sad story of reactive technology that failed to capture sufficient developer support. Microsoft invented Silverlight when Adobe Flash looked like it might take over as a universal runtime for web applications. The outcome was that Adobe evolved Flash with renewed vigour, keeping Silverlight at bay. Then Apple invented a new platform called iOS that supported neither Flash nor Silverlight, and the whole plug-in strategy began to look less compelling. Adobe has now reduced its focus on Flash, while Microsoft has been signalling a reduced role for Silverlight since its Professional Developers Conference in October 2010.

The question now is whether there will ever be a Silverlight 6.

Microsoft itself uses Silverlight across a number of products, such as administrative consoles for various server applications. Silverlight will be around for a while yet. Of course it is also the runtime for Windows Phone 7. Visual Studio LightSwitch generates Silverlight applications, and this one I am rather sad about, because it is an interesting tool that now seems to target the wrong platform. Perhaps the team will create an HTML 5 version one day.

HP contributes webOS to open source. Where next for HP mobile devices?

HP has announced that webOS, the mobile operating system acquired with Palm, will become an open source project:

HP will make the underlying code of webOS available under an open source license. Developers, partners, HP engineers and other hardware manufacturers can deliver ongoing enhancements and new versions into the marketplace.

HP will engage the open source community to help define the charter of the open source project under a set of operating principles:

  • The goal of the project is to accelerate the open development of the webOS platform
  • HP will be an active participant and investor in the project
  • Good, transparent and inclusive governance to avoid fragmentation
  • Software will be provided as a pure open source project

Despite the upbeat language, the fact that HP does not state that it will actually manufacture any webOS devices suggests that this is more a retreat than an advance. What kind of investment will HP put into webOS, if it is not selling devices?

Another problem is that Google Android is doing a great job meeting the demand for a freely available and mostly open source mobile operating system, leaving little space for other projects such as webOS or the Intel-sponsored MeeGo.

The question that interest me: where will HP now go with its mobile devices? There are several possibilities. It could do nothing, and focus on servers and PCs, thereby missing out on what is potentially a huge market. It could throw its hand in with Microsoft, with Windows 8 tablets sometime next year, and maybe some future version of Windows Phone. Or it could embrace Android, which still seems to have unstoppable momentum despite poor sales for most Android tablets.

Nokia Lumia 800 review: beautiful phone, some annoyances

I have been trying Nokia’s Lumia 800 for the last week or so, the first Windows Phone from the company. It is a significant device, since Microsoft is relying on Nokia to revive its Windows Phone 7 platform which has won only a tiny market share since its launch in late 2010, while Nokia is betting its business on Windows Phone after selecting it in preference to Google Android or its own MeeGo operating system. No pressure then.

The phone is nicely packaged and comes with a free protective skin as well as a fake railway ticket stating “Your one way ticket to amazing.” This is a UK ticket so I presume it is suitably regionalised elsewhere. A small detail, but it formed part of my impression that Nokia has thought carefully about the unwrapping experience, whereas previous HTC Windows Phones have felt like just another phone in a box.


The Lumia takes a micro-SIM, as used in the iPhone 4.x, and the only one I had available was in my iPhone, so I removed it and popped it in the Lumia. Everything worked, the switch-on and initial setup was good, and I was soon up and running with Exchange email. I did have to install my self-signed certificates for Exchange, but this is not an issue that will affect most users.

This phone has a polycarbonate body and a Gorilla Glass front and feels solid and well-made. The 480×800 screen is bright, clear and responsive to touch. I have not had any issues of laggy or uncertain response to taps.

What counts here is that the Lumia feels like a high quality device; the design has something extra that sets it apart from most smartphones out there.

In terms of hardware features, the Lumia is unexceptional, with volume, on-off and camera buttons on its right edge, speaker at the bottom, standard headset socket on top, and rear-facing camera lens and flash.

I rate the sound through the supplied ear buds as decent, but the speaker is tinny, much worse than that on the iPhone 4. Fortunately you rarely want to play music through the built-in speaker.

The USB connector (also used for charging) is behind a flap. You have to push a small protrusion to swing it open. It is a little awkward at first and a slight annoyance, but I can also see how it improves the appearance and protects the socket.

Although I like the hardware overall, there are a few issues. One is battery life; it is barely adequate, though Nokia says a future update will improve it:

A software update in early December will include improvements to power efficiency, while a second update in early January introduces further enhancements to battery life and battery charging.

How bad is it? Here is a screenshot:


Do the maths … if 23% is 1 hour then 100% is just over 4.5 hours, not good. Of course this is with active use, mostly email and web browsing. Do not panic about the “Time since last charge” – it was not a full charge!

The Lumia does have a neat feature whereby it goes into a “battery saver” mode which turns off non-essential services to prolong battery life when it is low. Curiously this was off by default, but I enabled it and it works.

Lumia Software

Physically the phone is above average; but what about the software? This bit is mostly Microsoft’s responsibility, though Nokia has done what it takes to make it run sweetly on the Lumia; the user interface flows smoothly and the chunky tiles are easy to tap.


On an iPhone you get four favourite shortcuts at the bottom of the screen and page through the others by swiping through pages (or you can create groups). On Windows Phone you get eight favourites above the fold, scroll down for more favourites or tap the arrow at top right for the complete alphabetical list which scrolls vertically. It is different but equally easy to use.

You have to tap at the top to see network and battery status; I would prefer to have this always visible but it is a minor point once you know how.

Nokia does supply several apps. Nokia Music is radio without the ads or commentary; you choose a genre and it plays continuous tracks. A decent app.


Nokia Maps is an alternative to the standard Bing Maps, which is also installed, and seems redundant to me, since it has fewer features. I also noticed several cafes wrongly positioned in my local area, which does not inspire confidence.

Nokia Drive though is worthwhile, offering turn by turn directions and its own set of road maps – though I am not sure how practical it is if you are driving on your own.

The Lumia comes with a mobile build of Internet Explorer 9, and I have found it pretty good in general though of course neither Adobe Flash nor even Silverlight is supported.

Office Hub

The Office Hub is one good reason to get a Windows Phone – provided you use Exchange and SharePoint (though note the annoyance below), or the free SkyDrive, or Office 365. I like the way Outlook on the phone easily handles multiple Exchange accounts, which appear as separate instances.

The Office Hub gives you read-write access to Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote documents, which I personally find useful, even though the editing features are limited.

Me and People Hubs

The Windows Phone 7 OS aggregates a number of social media accounts: Windows Live, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn though not Google+. I find this works fairly well, though I found the slightly different roles of the Me tile and the People tile confusing at first. Personally I use Twitter more than Facebook; and I find tweets of people I follow listed in the People app, while my own recent tweets and notifications of tweets mentioning me are in the Me app. I wonder if these two apps could usefully be merged?

That said, Windows Phone does a great job of surfacing your social network interactions and I would guess that this is one of its foremost attractions in the consumer market.


I found a few bugs and annoyances, though I suspect for most of these Microsoft is more to blame than Nokia.

First, there seems to be a bug in the interaction between the maps, the GPS and the direction finding and “Local Scout”, which is meant to find local attractions and facilities.

I saw this today. I was in London and the GPS was working fine, I could tap the “me” button and it correctly located me on the map. But when I asked for directions to a street nearby I got this:


“No location information”. Something not right there – and yes, I tried again. I also get this sometimes with Local Scout.

Second annoyance: on my Android phone I can connect to my laptop and use the mobile as a 3G modem. Windows Phone has a Mobile Hotspot feature, though it does not work on my O2 connection; I assume that is a carrier issue, but I miss the feature and the direct USB connection works well for me on Android.

Third annoyance: Zune. I do not know why Microsoft persists with the tarnished Zune brand, and it is a mistake to build in this dependency on Windows only desktop software – yes, I know there is also Windows Phone 7 Connector for the Mac. I would prefer to be able to connect the phone to any PC or Mac and have the ability to copy documents and music to and from device storage.

Zune is not too bad when everything is working, though I had a specific issue on the train recently. I had written some notes in a Word document on my laptop and wanted to transfer them to the phone. Zune only syncs music. The only way to get the document from the laptop to the phone would have been via the internet, and that was impossible because the laptop was offline.

Fourth annoyance: SharePoint. I run my own SharePoint server, and while I can easily access it on the internal network, if I try using it from Office Hub over the Internet I get the message “SharePoint doesn’t support this authentication scheme.”

This turns out to be documented:

Unless your organization uses a Microsoft Forefront Unified Access Gateway (UAG) server, you can only access a SharePoint 2010 site if you’re in the office and connected to your organization’s Wi-Fi network.

That is not what I consider a detailed technical explanation and maybe there is a workaround; but it is annoying when Microsoft cannot get its own products to work together properly. Note though that SharePoint in Office 365 works fine.

Fifth, I had to sign up for a paid developer account in order to install a screen capture application. This is why many Windows Phone reviews have no screenshots. How difficult would this be for Microsoft to build in?

Sixth, I have found Local Scout near-useless. This is mainly because of lack of momentum; it needs more data and user reviews to be useful. However I have also noticed that a restaurant near me which closed a while back is still listed even though I have twice reported it closed through the “Tell us this place is closed” link, the first time two months ago. It makes me wonder to what extent this database is actively maintained; inaccurate information can be worse than useless.

Windows Phone Apps: still a disappointment

The biggest disappointment deserves its own heading. This is the apps available in the marketplace. When I go to the Apple or Android stores I see dozens of apps that look interesting; in the Windows Phone store on the other hand I struggle to find excellent apps. The number of apps in the marketplace is less important than the quality, and here Windows Phone 7 still seems to fall short.

If I go to the marketplace, choose the category of All apps, and then select Top (which I presume ranks according to popularity and rating) it is interesting that they are all games and mostly from Microsoft Studios:


Games are important, but that does not look like a healthy ecosystem to me.

Could this be an opportunity for developers? Since Nokia World in London at the end of October I have seen a dramatic increase in profile for Windows Phone; it is what Microsoft should have achieved at the original launch a year earlier. We will not know numbers for a while, but there must be more of these things going out, with new users looking for apps.

The Camera

I am not reviewing the camera in detail here. The quality is good though the images seem a little “cold” to me, which means I suppose that the colours are not as vibrant as they should be. I will not press the point though; it is a decent camera and good enough.


This is a beautiful phone and the only showstopper problem is the poor battery life. If Nokia fixes this, we are left with what seems to me the best Windows Phone 7 implementation yet, despite a few annoyances which are mostly in the Windows Phone 7 OS and its core apps rather than being the fault of Nokia.

There are a number of things to like: social network integration, the Office Hub, Mix Radio

Nokia’s Windows Phone launch has made more impact than I had expected. Microsoft and its partners need to follow through with faster updates, and to work on quality rather than quantity in populating the app Marketplace.

Not allowed in Windows 8 Metro: porn, ads in live tiles, bugs, or opt-out data collection

Microsoft’s newly published Certification Requirements for the forthcoming Windows 8 store includes some notable points. Here are a few that caught my eye.

2.3 Your app must not use tiles or notifications for ads

No complaints about that one.

3.2 Your app must not stop responding, end unexpectedly, or contain programming errors

Hmm, this could be a tough one.

3.3 Your app must provide the same user experience on all processor types

OK, no “Intel-only” features. However you could by implication submit an “Intel-only” version of your app as long as it is called something different than than the ARM version.

3.7 Your app must not use an interaction gesture in a way that is different from how Windows uses the gesture

This is interesting as an example of enforcing application style guidelines. The intent is a consistent user experience, but is this heavy-handed?

4.1 Your app must obtain opt-in or equivalent consent to publish personal information

No stealthy personal data collection. A good thing; though if opt-in means “Hand over your data or you cannot run the app” it can still be difficult for users to avoid.

4.4 Your app must not be designed or marketed to perform, instruct, or encourage tasks that could cause physical harm to a customer or any other person

What a relief!

5.1 Your app must not contain adult content

Windows Metro a porn-free zone? This could be troublesome though. No games beyond PEGI 16? This is a preliminary document and it would not surprise me if there is some change here; maybe this is a restriction for the beta period only.

Windows Store: Microsoft explains another piece of its new platform

Microsoft’s Ted Dworkin, Partner Progam Manager, has posted details of how the forthcoming Windows Store will work. There is also detailed new information on MSDN. It is a key piece if you care about the next version of Windows, including details of how enterprises will be able to deploy apps as well as the terms of business for independent developers.


Here is a quick summary:

  • The store is both an app and a web site. The same content will automatically appear in both.
  • The store is for Metro-style apps, which run on the Windows Runtime. No word about desktop apps; my presumption is that they are excluded. The certification requirements refer only to Metro-style apps.
  • Apps can be offered as full-featured, limited or unlimited trial, upgradeable via in-app purchases.
  • Enterprise apps can be deployed through the store with access limited to employees.
  • Enterprise apps can also be deployed outside the store, using PowerShell scripts to domain-joined machines. Apps must be signed.
  • App vendors can use their own transaction engine and/or ad service if they choose, or use the built-in services for sale, in-app purchase and advertising. Subscriptions do not have to go through the store. My impression is that the initial sale does not have to be transacted through the store either but this is not 100% clear to me.
  • Developer registration for the store costs $49.00 for individuals or $99.00 for companies.
  • Revenue share is 70%, rising to 80% if you achieve over $25,000 revenue for an app.
  • Apps are subject to approval, but developers are given the App Certification Kit as part of the SDK. There is still scope for disagreement over the interpretation of policies.


There is an initial beta preview period during which all apps will be free. Microsoft has also annoyed most of the world’s developers by restricting a First Apps Contest to those who:

 are a developer – professional, hobbyist, or student – and you are a legal resident of the 50 United States and District of Columbia, France, Germany, Japan, or India

Why there are no tablets running Windows Phone 7

Once again people are asking why Microsoft has not allowed OEMs to build tablets running Windows Phone 7. Matthew Baxter-Reynolds says it is to do with income from OEM licenses:

Now, Microsoft charges OEMs far less for Windows Phone licenses (about $15 per unit) than for full-on Windows licenses (on average, working out to about $56 per unit) …  But for Ballmer and the team, this is the bad news scenario. Only $15 per licence? And even less in profit? Compared to $37 in profit? It’s a money-loser, people.

While I agree that Microsoft has a problem with its business model in the new world of mobile devices, I do not follow this reasoning. There is nothing to stop Microsoft charging more for Windows Phone OS on tablets than on phones if it could get away with it. Nor is it necessarily true that Microsoft will succeed in charging as much for Windows 8 on tablets as it does for Windows 8 on PCs. In fact, that is unlikely to be be true; they will be cheaper, especially on ARM.

If it is not this then, that still leaves the question of why Microsoft has not licensed the Windows Phone 7 OS for tablets.

Microsoft has undoubtedly fumbled tablet computing and this was a costly mistake. Nevertheless, it is a company capable of strategic thinking. I think it goes something like this, in no particular order.

First, I reckon Microsoft is thinking beyond the initial OEM license income for its profits from Windows 8 tablets. It is all about the apps – 30% of the income from every app sold on the locked-down ARM edition of Windows 8. Apps tend to be cheap, and there is cost in running the store, but there is potential for ongoing income that will exceed the initial license sale. Especially if, like Apple, Microsoft insists on a cut of subscription income, in-app advertising income, and so on.

Second, Microsoft is also betting on cloud computing. Windows Phone 7 is marketed mainly as a consumer device, but Microsoft is going to play the “this is the device for professionals” card at some point. You can bet that Windows 8 tablets, and their successors, will be promoted as the ideal client for Office 365, as well as for on-premise Exchange, SharePoint and Lync. Sell a tablet, buy a customer for Office 365. Lock customers into Office 365, and sell them other cloud applications and services. Plenty of opportunity for profit.

Third, my guess is that the Windows team at Microsoft does not consider the Windows Phone 7 OS good enough to be the foundation of its future mobile platform. They respect it enough to borrow its Metro design language, along with many aspects of the development model, but in the end Sinofsky and his team were not willing to hand over the future of Windows on devices to Windows CE and Silverlight.

What we are getting with the forthcoming Windows Runtime is a more deeply thought-through new platform in which .NET, native C++ code, and HTML 5 are equally well supported, and in which developers are forced to use asynchronous APIs that keep the user interface responsive. It will be a better app platform than the current Windows Phone OS; in fact, I fully expect Windows Runtime to migrate to the phone in some future version.

If Microsoft had allowed Windows Phone 7 onto tablets, it would have the difficult task of explaining to its customers how Windows 8 tablets differ from Windows Phone OS tablets as well as from those old Windows tablets from Bill Gates days.

Therefore Microsoft took the decision to wait until Windows 8 was ready. That was a bold decision, and it may be too late, but the reasoning is plausible.


High resolution downloads from Kate Bush

The official Kate Bush website is selling high-resolution 24-bit downloads of her new album 50 Words For Snow. There is even a detailed explanation of why the downloads are on offer and how they are created, credited to Bush’s organisation “The Fish People.”

The Fish People state that CD technology is old (true) and inadequate (controversial):

…despite the huge improvements the CD brought with it, the state of technology at the time introduced some limitations in the quality of audio that could be recorded and stored on the CD. The many advantages of the CD mean that it has continued to be the default consumer format for many years. However digital studio technology has moved on immensely.

According to this account, Kate Bush mixes her recordings to an analogue 1/2 inch 30ips tape. Then she masters this to 24/96 digital, which as she states:

increases the dynamic range and frequency response of the digital process well beyond the levels perceivable by the human ear.

The master is normalised for CD’s 16/44 format, which means the volume is adjusted to use all the available headroom. However for the downloads there is no normalisation, and if the description is to be believed, the files are the same as those used for the studio mastering.

Curiously the files are offered in uncompressed .wav, which makes for a bulky download:

With these files we also wanted you to be able to hear the recordings as close as possible to the way it sounded on the analogue master. For this reason we have chosen only to make available 24/96 .wav files in an uncompressed format. By not using compression we avoid any further possibility of introducing errors or noise into the files. The downside of using uncompressed files is that the files are large and will take a long time to download.

This is unnecessary since formats like FLAC and ALAC compress the size of the files but do not lose any musical information; you can expand them back into WAV without any loss.

The files sound excellent as you would expect. It is worth noting though that efforts to identify audible difference between 16/44 and 24/96 in blind listening tests have been mostly unsuccessful, suggesting that they sound either the same or very very close to the human ear, when careful level-matched comparisons of the same master are made. If the high-res files sound different from the CD, it is more likely because of other factors, such as additional audio compression (as opposed to lossless file compression) which does change the sound, or additional equalisation applied when mastering the CD.

Another quibble I have with this offer is that it gives the keen purchaser a difficult choice. Do you want the CD with its attractive hardbound mini-book and artwork, or download which costs more and comes with no artwork but may sound better? The keen fan has to buy both. By contrast, recent Peter Gabriel CDs have a code that lets you download the high-res files as well for no additional cost.

That said, kudos to Kate Bush for making available such high-quality downloads.