The metro-style hotel bar in Barcelona, ready for the launch of Windows 8 consumer preview.
Monthly Archives: February 2012
Google’s Eric Schmidt looks forward to an Android in every pocket
Google’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt addressed the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in confident mood, boasting of the strong growth in Android adoption and saying that the world would need to increase its population in order to sustain current rates of growth.
His keynote was in three parts. He kicked off with a plug for Chrome for Android, handing over to another Googler to show off its unlimited tabs and predictive background downloading which gives you near-instant page rendering if you pick the top hit after a Google search.
Next, he gave a somewhat political address appealing for light regulation of the Internet, on the grounds that any change to the current setup was likely to make it worse – “regulators regulate, that is what they do”. He also expressed his hope that fast internet access would be better extended to the world beyond the wealthy elite nations, noting the role of connectivity in the Arab Spring and in making public the actions of brutal dictators.
What has all this to do with Google’s business? Mainly, I suppose, that more connections means more Google searches which means more advertising income; Schmidt acknowledged that this forms the great majority of the company’s revenue, in the high nineties percentage-wise.
The third part of Schmidt’s session was the most interesting, when he took questions. He was asked for his thoughts on companies (I am sure Amazon was in the questioner’s mind) which take Android and remove all Google’s services. It is open source, he said, and that is entirely permissible; his hope is that customers will demand Google services and the Android market.
There was a revealing moment when an Iranian in the audience challenged Schmidt over his appeal for a free Internet. Chrome for Android was not available in Iran, he said, because Google, “your company”, is blocking it.
Schmidt immediately communicated with his legal team, who turned out to be sitting in the front row. Then he confirmed the block and said it was a requirement of US law, because of sanctions against Iran. “I’m with you”, he said, but Google has to comply with the law.
Another point of note was the number of references Schmidt made to privacy issues. He said that we will see increasing personalization of search and better targeted advertising, such that users will not mind it. You will be able to opt out, but according to Schmidt you will not want to. He added that personal data collection and use will continue to advance as far as society deems it ethical, a fascinating turn of phrase and one that bears further examination.
What was not mentioned? Apple, Microsoft, patents, the impact of the Motorola Mobility acquisition (he did say that that this last is not yet complete and that currently the company is managed independently).
It was an impressive keynote overall, given from a position of strength, at an event which is dominated in many respects by Android devices.
Images from Mobile World Congress – Huawei’s SmartPhone horse, a Lego robot that collects trash
There are some striking artifacts at Mobile World Congress this year. One is Huawei’s winged horse which stands proudly above one of the fountains.
It is made of smartphones, as this close up of a leg shows.
Impressive, though it is an expensive way to make a statue and I cannot help being reminded of the anti-capitalist protestors at the gate. Perhaps these are factory rejects.
Another amusing piece is this Lego robot which collects trash and drops it in the bin.
Unfortunately I cannot remember what this is promoting!
Nokia at Mobile World Congress: one year after the Windows Phone shift, how is it doing?
At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona Nokia CEO Stephen Elop reminded the press that this is the anniversary of the company’s big change of direction, when it adopted Windows Phone as its primary smartphone platform.
So how is it doing? Nokia’s speed of execution has been impressive. Since that announcement, the Lumia range has been introduced around the world; we were told today that it is on the way to China. The large screen Lumia 900 with LTE support has been launched in the USA and is coming to other territories, the next being Canada.
Nokia is also continuing to launch new Symbian devices. Today we heard about the Asha 202 and 203 which have touch screens as well as keypads, and the Asha 302 which includes an app-capable browser and support for Microsoft Exchange, pushing at SmartPhone boundaries but at a lower price.
Perhaps the most interesting announcement today though was that Microsoft is lowering the minimum hardware requirements for Windows Phone 7 – a surprising move given that technology advances are already making the existing requirements less expensive. The new, lower bar is 256MB RAM and a slower processor. This enables Nokia to launch the Lumia 610 at 189 Euro.
One of the intriguing questions: as Lumias fall in price, what is the future of Symbian at Nokia? The question was asked at the end of the press conference but not answered.
To add to the confusion, Nokia announced the Symbian-based 808 Pure View with a 41 megapixel sensor and “CD quality” recording. Apparently it is Symbian because it was developed before the Windows switch.
Nokia is betting on location-based services and announced improvements to Nokia Drive (full offline support) as well as Nokia Transport, for local bus and tram services.
Is Nokia’s Windows adventure working out? That is the question, and remains a wait and see, though my judgment based on the first year is that it remains in the game. In a sea of Android here at Mobile World Congress it does at least have something distinctive to offer.
Ford Microsoft car makes an appearance at Mobile World Congress
At the Showstoppers event just before the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona it was hard to miss the Ford car emblazoned with SYNC Ford Microsoft.
So what is this all about? Apparently, the European launch of in-car computers that hook up to Ford’s cloud services. Cue all the jokes about “if your car ran Windows.”
You have to provide the connectivity, for example by docking your smartphone. You can then stream music with voice control, make calls again with voice control, or if you hear a funny noise, send a diagnostic report on your car to Ford or perhaps your dealer.
Why bother with an in-car computer running Windows embedded, when you could just dock a smartphone and let that do all the work? That was my question too, though there are integration benefits. Some details are being held back for an announcement tomorrow.
By the the way if you think the picture is rubbish, blames the Samsung Slate 7, which was used to create this entire post.
Imperfect Samsung Slate 7 tablet shows challenge facing Windows 8
I took advantage of a trip to Seattle to purchase a Samsung 7 Slate, similar to the one given to attendees at Microsoft’s BUILD conference last September, though missing some of its sensors.
It is a decent machine, fast and well-specified, but not one I can recommend unless, like me, you are keen to give Windows 8 Consumer Preview the best chance to impress, and cannot wait the short interval until machines that are actually designed for Windows 8 turn up on the market.
This is a Windows 7 slate, and that is the main thing that is wrong with it, since Windows 7 does not work well with touch control. Samsung’s solution is to cover all the bases:
- A stylus is supplied so you can use pen control as with earlier Windows tablets
- There is a matching Bluetooth keyboard
- Samsung has created its own touch-friendly desktop with a selection of apps, so that you can avoid the classic Windows desktop
All these options make this an expensive device, but there are nevertheless a number of flaws and annoyances, some of which make you wonder “what were they thinking?” Here are some I have discovered in a few days of use:
1. There is an illumination sensor towards the top right of the screen bezel. This is a battery-saving measure, which adjusts the screen brightness according to the ambient light. Good thinking; except that if you are right-handed and controlling the slate with touch, your hand will often pass in front of the sensor. When that happens the screen dims, because it thinks the room is darker. The effect is that the screen constantly brightens and darkens in use, which is unpleasant. Fix: disable the feature and set the screen to a fixed brightness.
2. The on-screen keyboard is poor. This is the fault of Microsoft, not Samsung. If you have the keyboard set to float, the keys are too close together for fast typing. If you dock the keyboard, it becomes bigger, but impossible to use because it covers the bottom third of the screen. For example, it covers the search box on the Start menu when docked, so that you will be typing into it blind. Fix: Windows 8.
3. I got the matching Samsung wireless keyboard and found that the first key you press sometimes does not register. This is infuriating, especially for things like passwords. The reason, I discovered, is a setting in the Bluetooth card configuration “Allow the computer to turn off the device to save power.” When set, if you pause typing for 30 seconds, then the next key you press is in effect the on button and does not appear on the screen. Fix: uncheck this setting.
4. When using wifi at a meeting, I found that every two or three minutes I had to re-enter the username and password for the wifi hotspot. Nobody else had this problem. Fix: I am not sure, but updating the driver for the Intel wireless adapter plus sundry other Windows updates fixed it for me.
5. It is difficult to run without full administrator rights on the machine, as several Samsung utilities prompt for elevation.
6. There is no security button. This is the button that emulates Ctrl-Alt-Delete when you log on to Windows. Instead, you hold down the Windows key and press the power on switch – when you have discovered that this is what you have to do. It is not mentioned in the quick start leaflets. To be fair, this is only likely to be an issue if you do as I did and join the machine to a Windows domain. Samsung does include a Touch Logon application which lets you secure your machine with a simple code instead.
7. The pen sometimes stops working, or more precisely, the screen stops responding to the pen. Fix: pressing the screen rotation lock button seems to kick it back into life.
8. There is some clever coding that disables finger control when you are using the pen, which is a Wacom digitiser and not just a stylus. The idea is that you can rest your hand on the screen when using the pen. This mostly works, but I still find pen control less good on this device than on older Tablet PCs which respond only to the digitiser. The problem may be that when you lift the pen away from the screen, touch control turns back on. Whether or not this is the problem, I find it too easy to get unexpected behaviour.
9. Navigating the BIOS is difficult without a USB keyboard. It can be done. Volume up and down substitutes for the cursor keys, the Windows button is ESC and the rotation lock is Enter. The hard bit: switching between pages with volume and rotation button together. Fix: a USB keyboard.
10. The one solitary USB port has a tiny loose plastic cover which will soon get lost. For that matter, I will probably lose the expensive digitizer pen as well since it does not clip into the slate nor into the official Samsung case.
Is this a poor device then? Not at all. It is powerful and light, and works very well indeed if you pop the slate into its dock and use it with a wireless keyboard and mouse. In this guise though, it is more like a desktop PC.
When used purely as a slate though, this machine is far less usable than either an iPad or an Android tablet, both of which are also much cheaper.
Even some of the good ideas do not quite work properly. If you tap with three fingers, a floating panel appears with common actions that are otherwise tricky with touch, such as Ctrl-C for Copy. A great use of multitouch, except that if I do this in Windows Live Writer, it also registers as a zoom command which enlarges the text. Annoying.
All this is thought-provoking on the eve of the Windows 8 beta launch. Windows 8 in metro mode fixes the usability problems in the operating system, but will not prevent OEMs implementing half-baked ideas like Samsung’s illumination sensor. Further, people will buy Windows 8 tablets in part so that they can run desktop applications. How well will that work without docks, keyboards, pens and/or wireless mice, and high prices?
That said, Microsoft is aware of these issues which is why the Metro side of Windows 8 exists. The goal, I imagine, is that you will be able to stay in Metro all the time when using Windows 8 as a slate.
The confusing state of Microsoft’s TMG and UAG firewall and proxy software
I have been trying out Microsoft’s ForeFront Unified Access Gateway (UAG) recently, partly because it is the only supported way to publish a SharePoint site for Windows Phone. This was my first go with the product, though I am already familiar with the Threat Management Gateway (TMG) and its predecessor Internet Security and Acceleration Server (ISA) – and before that Proxy Server, dubbed “Poxy Server” by admins frustrated with its limitations. All these products are related, and in the case of UAG and TMG, more closely than I realised.
Note that Microsoft has indicated that the current version of TMG, 2010, is the last. What is happening to UAG is less clear.
What I had not realised until now is that TMG installs as part of UAG, though you are not meant to use it other than for a few limited uses. It is mainly there to protect the UAG server. The product positioning seems to be this:
- Use UAG for publishing applications such as SharePoint, Direct Access (access to Windows files shares over the internet) and Exchange. It is essentially a reverse proxy, a proxy for publishing and protecting server applications.
- Use TMG for secure internet access for users on your network.
This means that if you want to use Microsoft’s platform for everything possible, you are expected to run both UAG and TMG. That is OK for enterprises but excessive for smaller organisations. It is odd, in that TMG is also a capable reverse proxy. TMG is also easier to use, though that says more about the intricate user interface of TMG than it does about the usability of TMG. Neither product can be described as user friendly.
The complexity of the product is likely to be one of the reasons TMG is now being discontinued. It is a shame, because it is a decent product. The way TMG and ISA are designed to work is that all users have to authenticate against the proxy before being allowed internet access. This gives administrators a high degree of control and visibility over which users access which sites using which protocol.
Unfortunately this kind of locked-down internet access is inconvenient, particularly when there are a variety of different types of device in use. In many cases admins have to enable SecureNAT, or in other words unauthenticated access, partly defeating the purpose, but there is little choice.
ISA Server used to be supplied as part of Small Business Server (SBS); but when I spoke to Microsoft about why it was dropped in SBS 2008, I was told that few used it. Businesses preferred a hardware solution, whether a cheap router modem from the likes of Netgear or Linksys, or a security appliance from a company like Sonicwall, Cisco or Juniper.
The hardware companies sell the idea that a hardware appliance is more secure, because it is not vulnerable to Windows or Linux malware. There is something in the argument, but note that all security appliances are more software than hardware, and that a Windows box will be patched more regularly. ISA’s security record was rather good.
My hunch is that ease of use was a bigger factor for small businesses. Getting ISA or TMG to do what you want can be even more challenging that working out the user interface of a typical hardware appliance, though perhaps not with the more complex high-end units.
As for UAG, I have abandoned the idea of testing it for the moment. One of the issues is that my test setup has only one external IP. UAG is too elaborate for a small network like mine. I am sticking with TMG.
Adobe’s Flex roadmap: another go at positioning Flex and Flash versus HTML5
Adobe has published a Flex Roadmap which I guess is one of those “Let’s end the speculation” pieces which nevertheless still leaves you with questions.
Flex is the XML-based language for coding applications for the Flash player or runtime. Doubts about Adobe’s long-term strategy for Flex appeared last November when Adobe announced a shift in its business strategy towards digital media and marketing as opposed to enterprise solutions. In addition, Adobe stated that:
In the long-term, we believe HTML5 will be the best technology for enterprise application development. We also know that, currently, Flex has clear benefits for large-scale client projects typically associated with desktop application profiles
I imagine that this has made it difficult for Adobe’s partners to market Flex-based solutions, a problem that this new roadmap tries to address. It begins in forthright style, almost contradicting the earlier statement:
Adobe believes that Flex is the best solution for enterprise and data-centric application development today, and that moving Flex into a community-driven open source project ensures the continued development and success of Flex for years to come.
The paper goes on to iterate the benefits of Flex development, including what is perhaps the most important:
Flex offers complete feature-level consistency across multiple platforms, browsers, and devices
Before you say it, this can include Apple iOS thanks to the packager for iOS which wraps the Flash runtime with your app as a single native app. Mobile support for AIR (but not the Flash player) will continue on “current and future devices and OS updates including iOS 5, iPhone 5, iPad 3, and Android 4.” AIR is the runtime packager which lets you run Flash applications as if they were native apps. As for BlackBerry, Adobe says that RIM plans to continue supporting it, making it sound as if Adobe is not taking responsibility for it.
It gets worse though. What are the implications of Adobe handing over Flex to the Apache Foundation? Fewer Adobe engineers is one:
While under this new model Adobe will provide fewer engineering resources than in the past, we are working with the Flex developer community to increase the total number of active contributors and resources
The further down the document you get, the more complications appear. Adobe promises continued support for the current Flex 4.6 SDK in future Flash players for five years, but support for Apache Flex SDKs is not Adobe’s responsibility:
While Adobe will ensure that the Adobe Flex SDK 4.6 and prior will be supported in future versions of Flash Player and AIR, it will be the responsibility of the Apache Flex Project to test future versions of the Apache Flex SDK against released Adobe runtimes to ensure compatibility and proper functioning.
Another little downer is that since Adobe cannot sign Apache-created Flex shared libraries, they will not be cached globally by the Flash player, but only per domain.
Adobe also notes that:
Flash Platform technology will continue to evolve with a focus on gaming and premium video.
which maybe is not what a Flex developer wants to read.
Then there is the tooling, and the paper confirms that Flash Catalyst is discontinued, and that Design View and Data Centric Development tools will be removed from Flash Builder, even including updated 4.x versions. Adobe says this is “In order to better support future Apache-derived Flex SDKs.”
One last point of interest: regarding Flash Player and AIR for Windows 8, Adobe says:
For information on support in future operating systems, please refer to the Flash Player Roadmap White Paper, which will be published shortly.
I guess what we are waiting to hear is whether and when Adobe might support the new Windows Runtime with AIR and the Flash Captive Runtime, since the Flash plug-in will not work on the Metro browser in Windows 8.
So what is Adobe really saying, and what is the future for Flex development? It is all very well saying now, three months after signalling a shift to HTML5, that Flex is still a great platform, but the tangible facts are these. First, Adobe is investing less than before in Flex. Second, Flex will be with Apache and it is up to that nebulous thing the community to determine what happens to it.
Kudos to Adobe for spelling out more clearly what is happening to Flex and AIR; but my sense is that the platform will still decline.
Small Businesses love the cloud says Parallels: three times more likely to choose cloud over on-premise servers
The Parallels Summit is on in Orlando, Florida, and at the event the company has released details of its “Cloud insights” research, focused on small businesses.
Most people know Parallels for its desktop virtualization for the Mac. This or an equivalent comes in handy when you need to run Windows software on a Mac, or cross-develop for Mac and Windows on one machine.
Another sides of the company’s business though is providing virtualization software for hosting providers. The Plesk control panel for managing virtual machines and websites through a web interface is a Parallels product. Many of the customers for this type of hosting are small businesses, which means that Parallels has an indirect focus on this market.
Despite Parallels offering a “Switch to Mac” edition and perhaps competing in some circumstances with Microsoft’s Hyper-V virtualization, Parallels is a Microsoft partner and has tools which work alongside Hyper-V as well as supporting Microsoft cloud services including Office 365.
Given the company’s business, you can expect its research to come out in favour of cloud, but I was still interested in this statistic:
SMBs with less than 20 employees are at least three times more likely to choose cloud services over on-premise services
It was not long ago that SMBs of this size would almost inevitably install Microsoft’s Small Business Server once they got too big to manage with an ad-hoc network.
I would be interested to know more of course. How do they break down between, say, Google apps, Office 365, or other services such as third-party hosted Exchange? Do they go pure cloud as far as possible, or still run a local server for file shares, print management, and legacy software that expects a local Windows server? Or cloud for email, on-premise for everything else? Do they trust the cloud completely, or have a plan “B” in the event that the impossible happens and services fail?
Finally, what happens as these companies grow? Scalability and pay as you go is a primary reason for going cloud in the first place, so my expectation is that they would stay with this model, but I also suspect that there is pressure to have some on-premise infrastructure as sites get larger.
Tablets will be bigger than PCs. Are you ready?
Apple’s CEO Tim Cook spoke at the Goldman Sachs Technology Conference yesterday; Macrumors has what looks like a full transcript. Do not expect hot news; there is little or nothing in the way of announcements. It is interesting though as a recap of how Apple sees its future: iPad, iPhone, iCloud, Apple TV, maybe some future huge acquisition financed by its cash pile.
This is what stands out for me:
From the first day it shipped, we thought that the tablet market would become larger than the PC market and it was just a matter of the time it took for that to occur. I feel that stronger today than I did then.
I agree. The reasons are similar to those that caused laptops to outpace desktops. Mobility and convenience trump the better computing value you get in a desktop PC. Note: we still use desktops, and both desktops and laptops will continue to sell, but in smaller quantity.
Although you can list numerous reasons why tablets are not good enough – no keyboard, small storage capacity, underpowered for cutting-edge gaming, not really expandable, favourite apps not yet available, and more – none of these is sufficient to prevent the tablet taking over in the majority of cases.
You can have a keyboard if you want; build it into the case. Storage is increasing all the time, and we have the cloud. Graphics power is increasing all the time. Most people are happy to sacrifice expandability for the simplicity and reliability of a tablet. If your favourite app is not yet available, it soon will be; or else an equivalent will appear that replaces it.
Tablet benefits? Cost, no flappy screen, light and small, designed for ease of use, reliability of an appliance versus a computer for starters.
In itself, the move from one type of computing device to another is no big deal. The reason this one is such a deep change is because of other factors. I will list three:
- The lock down
Pioneered by Apple, this is the idea that users should not have full access to the operating system on their device in almost any circumstances. The lock down is a cost and a benefit. The benefit: resilience against malware, greater reliability. The cost: loss of control, loss of freedom, handing over even more power to those who do have full access, primarily the operating system vendor. Where UEFI secure boot is enabled, it is not even possible to boot to an alternative operating system.
- The store
Hand in hand with the lock down is the store, the notion that apps can only be installed through the operating system vendor’s store. This is not a universal tablet feature. Apple’s iPad has it, Microsoft’s forthcoming Windows 8 on ARM has it, Android devices generally let you enable “unknown sources” in order to install apps via a downloaded package, though sometimes this option is missing. Further, both Apple and Microsoft have schemes whereby corporates can install private apps. Still, the consequence of the lock down is that the ability to install apps freely is something which can be tuned either way. Since store owners take a cut of all the business, they have have a strong incentive to drive business their way.
I have never believed Apple’s line that the iTunes store is intended as a break-even project for the convenience of its hardware customers.
- The operating system
I am at risk of stating the obvious, but the fact that most tablets are iPads and most non-Apple tablets are Android is a monumental shift from the Windows-dominated world of a few years back. Can Microsoft get back in this game? I am impressed with what I have seen of Windows 8 and it would probably be my tablet of choice if it were available now. The smooth transition it offers between the old PC desktop world and the new tablet world is compelling.
That said, this cannot be taken for granted. I watched someone set up a new Android tablet recently, and was interested to see how the user was driven to sign up for a variety of services from Google and HTC (it was an HTC Flyer). Devices will be replaced, but accounts and identities are sticky. Users who switch devices may face having to move documents to a different cloud provider if they know how, re-purchase apps, figure out how to move music they have purchased, re-buy DRM content. A big ask, which is why Microsoft’s late start is so costly. At best, it will be a significant player (I think it will be) but not dominant as in the past.
Late start? Did not Bill Gates wave a slate around and predict that it would be the future of the PC back in 2001:
"So next year a lot of people in the audience, I hope, will be taking their notes with those Tablet PCs … it’s a PC that is virtually without limits and within five years I predict it will be the most popular form of PC sold in America."
Right idea, wrong execution. Microsoft tried again with Origami, the ultra mobile PC, a device that was so obviously flawed that everyone knew it would fail. My belief is that Microsoft, helped by Apple’s example, has a tablet concept that works this time round, but nevertheless the history is discouraging.
One reason for the relative failure of the Tablet PC and the complete failure of Origami was price. Microsoft’s business model depends on selling software licenses, whereas Apple mostly bundles this cost into that of the hardware, and Android is free. Price of the first Windows 8 tablets is unknown, but could again prove to be a problem.
Interesting to debate; but however it shakes out, Windows-only is not coming back .
It follows that as tablet use continues to grow, both business and consumer computing are transforming into something different from what we have become used to. Considering this fact, it would be interesting to analyse affected businesses in terms of how ready they are for this change. It would be fascinating to see companies ordered by some kind of tablet readiness index, and my guess is that those towards the bottom of that hypothetical list are in for a nasty shock.