Google I/O 2014: impressive momentum, no wow moments

I am not in San Francisco but attended Google I/O Extended in London yesterday, to hear the keynote and a couple of sessions from Google’s annual developer conference.


I found the demographics different than most IT events I attend: a younger crowd, and plenty of start-ups and very small businesses, not at all enterprisey (is that a word?)


The main announcements:

A new version of Android, known as Android L (I don’t know if this will expand eventually to Lollipop or Liquorice or some such). Big release  with over 5,000 new APIs, we were told (when does Android start being called bloated, I wonder?). Themes include a new visual style called Material Design (which extends also to the Web and to Chrome), and suitability for more device types including Android TV, Android Wear (smart watches) and Android Auto. A new hardware accelerated graphics API called Android Extension Pack which implements OpenGL ES for better game performance, with support from NVIDIA Tegra. Android graphics performance will be good enough for a considerable subset of the gaming community and we saw Unreal Engine demoed.

Android L does not use Dalvik, the virtual machine that runs Java code. In its place is ART (Android Runtime). This is 64-bit, so while Java code will run fine, native code will need updating.

Google is working hard to keep Android under its control, putting more features into its Play Services, the closed part of Android available only from Google and which is updated every 6 weeks, bypassing the operator obstacle to OS updates. There is also a new reference design including both hardware and software which is designed for affordable smartphones in the developing world: third parties can take this and build a decent Android mobile which should sell for under $100 as I understood it. I imagine this is designed to ward off fractured Android efforts like Microsoft’s Nokia X, aimed at the same kind of market but without Play Services.

There are new Android smart watches on the way, and we saw the inevitable demonstration of a user using voice control to the watch for ordering taxis or pizzas, getting notifications, and sending simple messages.

Voice control demos always seem to be nervous moments for presenters – will they be understood? Unfortunately that uncertainty remains for real users too, as evidenced by Xbox One Kinect which is amazing in that it often works, but fails often enough to be irritating. Voice recognition is a hard problem, not only in respect of correctly translating the command, but also in correctly detecting what is a command (if the person standing next to me shouts “Taxi please” I do not want my watch to order one for me).

The smart watch problem also parallels the TV problem. The appeal of the watch is that it is a simple glanceable device for telling the time. The appeal of the TV is that it is a simple sit-back screen where you only have to select a channel. Putting more smarts into these devices seems to make sense, but at the same time damages that core feature, unless done with extreme care.

Android TV puts the OS into your television, though Google’s messaging here is somewhat confusing in that, on the one hand, Chromecast (also known as Googlecast) means that you can use your Google device (Android or Chromebook) as the computer and the TV as the display and audio system, while on the other hand you can use Android on the TV itself as an all-in-one.

We are inching towards unified home entertainment, but with Google, Microsoft (Xbox One), Sony (PlayStation) and Apple all jostling for position it is too early to call a winner.

Material Design – Metro for Android?

We heard a lot about Material Design, which is Google’s new design style. Google borrowed plenty of buzzwords form Microsoft’s “Metro” playbook, and I heard expressions like “fast and fluid”, clean typography, signposting, and content-first. Like Metro, it also seems to have a blocky theme (we will know when the next design wave kicks in as it will have rounded corners).


Material Design is not just for Android. You can also implement the concept in Polymer, which is a web presentation framework built on Web Components, a standard in draft at the W3C. Support for Web Components (and therefore Polymer) is already in Chrome, advancing rapidly in Mozilla Firefox, probably coming in Apple Safari, and maybe coming in Microsoft IE. However, a JavaScript library called Polyfill means that Polymer will run to some extent in any modern browser.

Whenever IE was mentioned by a presenter at Google I/O there was an awkward/knowing laugh from the audience. Think about what that means.

One of the ideas here is that with a common design concept across Android and web, developers can make web apps (and therefore Chrome apps) look and behave more like Android apps (or vice versa). Again, there is a similar concept at Microsoft, where the WinJS library lets you implement a Metro look and feel in a web app.

Microsoft may have been ahead of Google in this, but it has done the company little good in that adoption for Metro has been weak, for well-rehearsed reasons connected with the smartphone wars, legacy Windows desktop and so on. Google has less legacy weighing it down.

How good is Material Design though? Apple’s Steve Jobs once said of a new OS X design update that it was so good you want to lick it. Metro lacks that kind of appeal, and judging from yesterday’s brief samples, so does Material Design, whatever its other merits in terms of clarity and usability. It is early days though.

Business features: Samsung Knox, Office support, unlimited storage

Google announced a couple of  features aimed at business users. One is that Samsung Knox, app sandboxing and data security for business users, has been donated to Google for integration into Android. Another is that Google Docs will get the ability to edit Microsoft Office documents in their native format, removing an annoyance for users who previously had to convert documents to and from Google’s own format when exchanging them with Microsoft Office users.

This seems to be an admission that Microsoft Office is the business standard for documents, and you can take it either way – good for Google because compatibility is better, or good for Microsoft because it cements Office as the standard. There will be ifs and buts of course.

Google is also offering unlimited online storage for business users, called Drive for Work, at $10 per user per month, upping the ante for everyone in the online storage game – Microsoft, Dropbox, Box and so on.

Google’s Cloud Platform

Google showed new features in its cloud platform, with a focus on big data analytics using an approach called Cloud Dataflow. “We don’t use MapReduce any more”, said the presenter, explaining that Cloud Dataflow enables all of us to use the same technology Google uses to analyse big data.

Greg DeMichille, a director of product management for the cloud platform, appeared on stage to show features for in-browser tracing and debugging of cloud applications. I recall DeMichille being much involved in Microsoft’s version of Java back in the days of the battle with Sun; he also had a spell at Adobe getting behind Flash and Flex for developers.

No Wow moments

The Google I/O 2014 keynote impressed in terms of numbers – Android growth continues unabated – and in terms of partners lining up behind initiatives like Android TV and Android Auto. The momentum seems unstoppable and the mass market for mobile and embedded devices is Google’s to lose.

On the other hand, I did not notice any game-changing moments such as I experienced when first seeing the Chromebook, or the Google Now personalisation service. Both of those still exist, of course, but if Android will really change our lives for the better, Google could have done a better job of conveying that message.

Embarcadero AppMethod: another route to cross-platform mobile, now with C++ support

Embarcadero has updated AppMethod, its IDE for cross-platform mobile and desktop applications. The IDE now supports C++, and as a special offer, you can develop Android phone “free forever”, according to the web site.

AppMethod is none other than our old friend Delphi, combined with the FireMonkey cross-platform framework. The difference between AppMethod and the older RAD Studio product line (current version is XE6) is twofold:

1. AppMethod does not include the VCL, the Delphi framework for Windows applications. It does let you develop for Windows or Mac OS X using FireMonkey.

2. You can buy RAD Studio outright with a perpetual license, from £1342.00 plus VAT for a new user (RAD Studio Professional). AppMethod is only available on subscription.

AppMethod pricing is per developer per platform per year. Currently this is £179.83 plus VAT for individuals (very small businesses up to a maximum of 5 employees in the entire organisation) or £600 for larger businesses (a rather large premium).

C++ support is new in AppMethod 1.14 and supports all target platforms except the iOS Simulator (an annoying limitation). It supports ARC (Automatic Reference Counting) on Android as well as iOS. Mac OS X is supported from 10.8 (Mountain Lion) and up.

There are also a few changes in FireMonkey. You can load HTML into the TWebBrowser component using LoadFromStrings. There is a new date picker component.

Another new feature is in the RTL (run time library). Called App Tethering, it lets applications communicate with each other, for example using TCP. These can be apps on the same device or remote apps. Once paired, apps can run remote actions and share standard data types and streams.

There are also updates to push notifications for iOS and Android, Google Glass support, updated OpenGL and DirectX support on Windows, and more: see here for the complete documentation of what is new.

A Quick Hands-on

I installed the latest AppMethod on Windows 8. The install warns that AppMethod cannot co-exist with RAD Studio XE6, presumably because it is essentially the same thing re-wrapped. The product name is relatively new, but there is plenty of old stuff under the covers. AppMethod still has a dependency on JSharp, Microsoft’s Java implementation for .NET. Java code in the IDE dating back to who knows when?


There is a 10-field dialog conforming paths for Android tools, which is a reminder of how many moving parts there are here. It is more complex that most Android development environments because it uses the NDK (Native Development Kit) as well as the usual SDK.


Once up and running, you can start a new project such as a FireMonkey mobile application:


and then you are in an IDE which would not be entirely unfamiliar to a Delphi user in 1995 (or I suppose, a C++ Builder user in 1997) – I am not saying this is a bad thing, though the IDE feels dated in comparison to Microsoft’s Visual Studio.


After coming from a spell of development with XAML it feels odd to have a form builder that defaults to xy layout, but layout managers are available:


Compile and run, and after the usual slow initialization of the Android emulator, the app appeared.


Why AppMethod?

In the crowded world of cross-platform mobile development, why use AppMethod?

Embarcadero makes a big play of its native development, though it is “native” in respect of code execution but not in GUI fidelity since by default visual controls are custom-drawn by the framework. This is in contrast to Xamarin (the obvious alternative for developers from a Windows background) which does no custom drawing but only uses native controls; however for raw performance AppMethod may have the edge (I have not done comparisons).

Delphi developers should also look at RemObjects Oxygene which also uses a Delphi-like language but is hosted in Visual Studio and, like Xamarin, uses native UI components.

The AppMethod approach does make sense if you prioritise maximum code-sharing over getting exactly the right look and feel for each supported platform, and need better performance or more capability than HTML and JavaScript can get you. There is no support for Windows Phone though; if that is in your plans, Xamarin or HTML and JavaScript development is a better fit.

Review: Sony SRS-X9 high-resolution network music player

Sony’s top of the range wireless speaker grabbed my attention because it is not just a Bluetooth and Apple AirPlay speaker, but also the entry-level device in Sony’s push for high resolution audio, billed as better than CD quality. Get all the ducks in line, and you can play DSD (the format of SACD) downloads directly through this device, or high-resolution PCM at up to 32-bit/192kHz. It has the speaker technology to go with it too: sub-woofer for deep bass (within the limitations of a small box), and super tweeters for extended high frequencies up to a rumoured 40kHz, though I cannot find detailed specification from Sony. Note that this is well beyond what humans can hear.


In the box you get the wireless speaker, remote, polishing cloth, mains cable, two odd little sticks which, it turns out, are tools for removing the front grille, and a couple of short leaflets in multiple languages.


The remote has functions for power, input selection (Network, Bluetooth, USB-A, USB-B or analogue audio in), volume, mute, play/pause and skip.


This unit is flexible to the point of confusion. Here are the ways you can play back music:

  • Apple AirPlay: play from iTunes over an wired or wireless network using Apple’s proprietary protocol.
  • Bluetooth from Bluetooth-enabled devices such as smartphones or tablets. Uses A2DP (Advanced Audio Distribution Protocol) for best quality.
  • From a DLNA-compliant music server on your network. Sony’s free Media Go will do, but there are quite a few of these around.
  • Audio in using an old-fashioned 3.5mm jack cable.
  • Direct attached USB storage. I had limited success with this, but did manage to play some FLAC files from a USB stick. It is designed for just a few files.
  • Direct USB connection to a PC or Mac. In this mode the unit is a USB DAC. This is how you get the very best quality.


Supported formats are MP3, AAC, WMA, WAV, FLAC, and DSD via USB after firmware update. ALAC (Apple lossless) is not listed, but an Apple lossless file I created played fine from a USB stick, from which I conclude that it supports that too.

So how is the out of box experience? The first thing you notice is that this thing is heavy – 4.6kg. Despite its relatively small size (about 430 x 133 x 125mm) it is not all that portable; I mean, you can move it about if you like, but as well as the weight there is no handle and it should be moved with care; it is also mains-only.

The introductory manual gives you several ways to get started. It covers only wi-fi connection; if you want to use a wired network, Bluetooth or USB connection, you are referred to the online manual here. Otherwise, you are offered instructions for iOS, Android, PC or Mac. I have a Sony Xperia (Android) smartphone so I took that option; possibly a mistake.

I tried to follow the setup guide. I have a Sony Xperia (Android) smartphone. I downloaded the recommended SongPal app and successfully paired the phone with the speaker with NFC (tap to connect). The app prompted me to enter my home wifi password, but I was not successful; it just did not want to connect and kept on prompting me. I got hold of an iPhone, tried SongPal on that and was able to connect. Odd.

Once up and running it was time to play some music. I was able to play direct from the phone (Bluetooth streaming) without any problem. My results with DLNA were mixed. I have Logitech Media Server on the network which supports DLNA. Bizarrely, this usually shows up as a source when using the Android SongPal, but not when using the iOS SongPal. It worked at first, but then I started getting “Playback failed”. I had better luck with Windows Media Player over DLNA, and also Sony’s own Media Go.

That said, even when it is working I don’t much like the DLNA option. There is no search option and if you have a lot of music you do endless scrolling. This seems to be a feature of DLNA rather than the fault of SongPal, and a reason why it will never catch up with iTunes/AirPlay or Sonos.

SongPal also supports various apps such as Tunein (internet radio), Music Unlimited and Deezer. You can also add apps such as Google Play. This is a tad confusing though. Tunein seems to be built-in; you can select a radio station, play, turn off your smartphone and it keeps going. Choose Google Play though and it plays over Bluetooth from your phone; disconnect the phone and the music stops.


Since Tunein appears to be baked it, it is a shame that you cannot use the radio from the remote without needing SongPal.

If SongPal is not working for you, or if you have a non-supported phone such as Windows Phone, you can connect over the network. The manual suggests that you do a direct connection to a PC using an Ethernet cable, in which case the unit will likely show up in a web browser on However if you connect the Ethernet cable to a switch (such as a socket on the back of your broadband router) it will show up on whatever IP number is allocated by the router; you can find it by looking at DHCP allocations, a bit tricky. There is also a WPS button for instant connection if your wireless router supports it (mine is disabled for security reasons).

Wireless configuration through a web browser, once you get there, is really easy. You can even set a fixed IP address if you want. However, the browser configuration does NOT give access to all the features of the unit; it is mainly for network configuration. The SongPal app has additional settings, including EQ, a setting called ClearAudio+ which does who knows what, and DSEE HX which is meant to enhance lossy audio files such as MP3. That’s unfortunate; not everyone uses iOS or Android. That said, SongPal is not much fun to use anyway so you are not missing too much.


Once the unit was up and running I tried a few other modes. I ran up Apple iTunes and tried AirPlay, which works great, though with the usual AirPlay annoyance of a pause when connecting. When using AirPlay, you can use the pause, next and back buttons on the supplied remote. These don’t work in all modes, another point of confusion.

What about playing high resolution music or DSD? I was excited about this possibility so keen to get it working. I even have some DSD downloads to try. Discovering how was a bit of an adventure. You need to do two things.

First, update the firmware, by connecting over wifi and using the otherwise undocumented update button on top of the unit (check Sony’s site for full instructions). You need at least firmware

Second, find and install the Hi-Res Audio Player for PC or Mac on Sony’s site. Third, get a USB cable (not supplied) and connect it to a PC.

The downloads to get this working are here.


I was rewarded with excellent sound quality, though the audio player software is basic. On my DSD downloads I could see, for example, 2.8MHzs DSF indicated, and the configuration offered “DSD Native”, so I believe this thing really is a DSD DAC (though who knows, it may convert to PCM internally).


Once connected in this way, you can also set it as the output for other audio software such as Foobar 2000 or iTunes.

The sound

What of the sound though? The SRS-X9 has seven speakers: 1 sub-woofer, two midrange, two tweeters and two super-tweeters. This means you get mono for the lowest frequencies, but that it not really a disadvantage as low frequencies are not directional and you don’t get much stereo image with this box anyway.

In addition, there are two passive bass radiators.


As you would expect from a unit at this price (nearly £600 in the UK) and with some audiophile pretensions, the sound is very good. In its class – as a single box wireless speaker – it may be the best I’ve heard. It easily beat a Squeezebox Boom, sounding both bigger and cleaner. I also thought it had the edge over an Audyssey Lower East Side Audio Dock Air, which is another AirPlay speaker with good sound, though the Audyssey offers deeper bass.

The SRS-X9 does go relatively deep though, and the bass is clean whereas the Audyssey tends to boom a little.

The sound is not faultless though. It is a touch bright and can get a little strident at higher volumes. Vocals can have slightly exaggerated sibilance. Stereo imaging, as mentioned above, is poor, thanks to the close proximity of left and right speakers. The sound is exceptionally clean, which is hardly a fault, but worth noting if you like to get down and boogie; you might find the SRS-09 overly clinical.

These are reasons why the SRS-09 will not replace a traditional home stereo for me. I also like having separate speakers either side of my PC screen, so this is not perfect for that role.

HOWEVER as a minimalist and good-looking single box speaker this is excellent; perfect for a sitting room if you do not want the clutter of a traditional home stereo, or for somewhere else round the house where you want high quality music.

The sound over USB is best, and ideally I would suggest parking a Mac Mini or similar small computer next to it and using it that way. On the other hand, AirPlay also works well and in conjunction with Apple’s Remote app this is a convenient solution. Bluetooth can be handy too.

A few other notes. Sony has gone for an understated design, and the buttons on top of the unit are completely flat and in fact mostly invisible unless you hover your hand close by – it uses a proximity sensor. Clever, but easy to hit a button by accident if you are repositioning the device.

The appearance is glossy black, looks nice but gets dusty easily. Sony supplies a little black cloth for polishing. Unfortunately the super tweeters on top are surrounded with a slightly sticky area which attracts dust and is hard to clean; this might bother you if you are meticulous about such things.

The front grille can be removed with two supplied magnetic tools; Sony says this give a “more dynamic sound” though the difference is not great.


It is a shame that there is no audio output port, neither for headphones, nor for external speakers. You cannot use this as a DAC for another stereo system, for example.

An S/PDIF optical digital input would also be handy, as this is more universally compatible than USB for wired digital input.

Other weak points are the fiddly setup, reliance on a mobile app for some settings, general unreliability of DLNA, and some problems which mysteriously disappear when you turn off and on again (with so many input options it is not surprising that the Sony gets confused sometimes).

Conclusion? There is a ton of technology packed into this box and it does sound good. I like the option to play back native DSD even though it is all a bit mad; it is doubtful that the inaudible higher frequencies really make any difference, and there are compromises elsewhere such as the mono sub-woofer and limited stereo image that more than outweigh any benefit from high-resolution (a controversial subject). Never mind though; Sony has taken trouble over the sound and it shows.

Good points

  • Flexible streaming options
  • High quality sound, exceptionally clean
  • Compact, minimalist design
  • Smooth AirPlay support
  • Support for hi-res PCM and DSD audio files when connected via USB

Bad points

  • Dependence on iOS or Android apps for some features, no support for Windows Phone
  • No headphone socket
  • No audio output for connection to other hi-fi kit
  • No S/PDIF optical digital input
  • Limited stereo image and sound too bright on some material


  • Size: 430x133x125mm
  • Weight: 4.6Kg
  • Power consumption: 50w
  • Power output: unknown though Amazon quotes “154w”
  • Frequency response: Sony quotes “45Hz to 40kHz”.
  • Drive units: 1 sub-woofer, 2 passive bass radiators, 2 midrange units, 2 tweeters, 2 super-tweeters
  • Streaming support: Bluetooth audio, AirPlay, DLNA

Microsoft Azure: growing but still has image problems

I attended a Microsoft Cloud Day in London organised by the Azure User Group; I booked this when Technical Fellow Mark Russinovich was set to attend, but regrettably he cancelled at a late stage. I skipped the substitute keynote by UK Microsoftie Dave Coplin as I heard the very same talk earlier this month, so arrived mid-morning at the venue in Whitechapel; not that easy to find amid the stalls of Whitechapel Market (well, not quite), but if you seek out the Whitechapel branch of the Foxcroft and Ginger cafe (not known to Here Maps on Windows Phone, incidentally) then you will find premises upstairs with logos for Barclays Accelerator and Microsoft Ventures; something to do with assisting the flow of cash from corporate giants desperate for community engagement to business start-ups desperate for cash.

Giving technical presentations is hard, and while I admired Richard Conway’s efforts at showing how, with some PowerShell, he could transform some large dataset into rows of numbers using the magic of Azure HDInsight I didn’t think it quite worked. Beat Schwegler dived into code to explain the how and why of Azure Notification Hubs, a service which delivers push notifications to mobile apps; useful material, but could have been compressed. Then there was Richard Astbury at software development company two10degrees who talked about Project Orleans, high scale applications via “an Actor Model framework of programmable in-memory objects”; we learned about grains and silos (or software equivalents) in a session that was mostly new to me.

At the break I chatted with a somewhat bemused attendee who had come in the hope of learning about whether he should migrate some or all of his small company’s server requirements to Azure. I explained about Office 365 and Azure Active Directory which he said was more relevant to him than the intricacies of software development. It turns out that the Azure User Group is really about software development using Azure services, which is only one perspective on Microsoft’s cloud platform.

For me the most intriguing presentation was from Michael Delaney at ElevateDirect, a young business which has a web application to assist businesses in finding employees directly rather than via recruitment agencies. His company picked Amazon Web Services (AWS) over Azure two and a half years ago, but is now moving to Microsoft’s cloud.

Michael Delaney, CTO and co-founder ElevateDirect

Why did he pick AWS? He is not a typical Microsoft-platform person, preferring open source products including Linux, Apache Solr, Python and MySQL. When he chose AWS, Azure was not a suitable platform for a mainly Linux-based application. However, he does prefer C# to Java. According to Delaney, AWS is a Java-first platform and he found this getting in the way of development.

Azure today, says Delaney, has the first-class support for Linux that it lacked a few years back, and is a better platform for C# applications than AWS even though AWS does support Windows servers.

Migrating the application was relatively straightforward, he said, with the biggest issue being the move from Amazon S3 (Simple Storage Service) to Azure Storage, though he overcame this by abstracting the storage API behind his own wrapper code.

Azure is not all the way there though. Delaney is disappointed with the relational database options on offer, essentially SQL Server or third-party managed MySQL from ClearDB. He would like to see options for PostgreSQL and others. He would also like the open source Elastic Search to be offered as an Azure service.

There was a panel discussion later at which the question of Azure’s market perception was discussed. Most businesses, according to one attendee, think of AWS as the only option for cloud, even if they are Microsoft-platform businesses for whom Azure might be more suitable. It is a branding problem caused by the AWS first-mover advantage and market dominance, said Microsoft’s Steve Plank.

I would add that Azure is relatively new, at least in its new incarnation offering full IaaS (infrastructure as a service). AWS is also ahead on the number and variety of services on offer, and has not really messed up, which means there is little incentive for existing users to move unless, like Delaney, they find some aspect of Microsoft’s platform (in his case C#) particularly compelling.

This leads me back to the bemused attendee. It seems to me that Azure’s biggest advantage is Azure Active Directory and seamless integration with Office 365. Having said that, it is not difficult to host an application on AWS that uses Azure Active Directory, but there may be some advantage in working with a single cloud provider (and you can expect fast low-latency networking between Azure and Office 365).

Adobe focuses on iPad (not Android) with new mobile Creative Cloud apps

Adobe has announced a new wave of its Creative Cloud subscription offering, including new mobile apps for Apple’s iPad.

The apps are Adobe Sketch, Adobe Line, Adobe Photoshop Mix, Lightroom Mobile and Adobe Voice.

Photoshop Mix includes a popular feature of the desktop package, content-aware fill, which you can use to remove unwanted objects from an image.


There is also hardware for the iPad: Adobe Ink which is a digital pen, and Adobe Slide, a digital ruler. They only work with Adobe apps but apparently are cleverly designed using a wireless connection to overcome the lack of built-in pen support on the iPad. (I was amused by the codename for Slide – “Project Napoleon”, little ruler, geddit?)


Why the focus on the iPad, when Android is also a popular tablet platform? Adobe says that it its particular design-oriented market, almost all the demand is for iPad support. That said, it is interested in Microsoft’s Surface 3 as a tablet platform for designers.

There are also new features in the Creative Cloud desktop applications, which have all been updated. These include Smart Guides, font search, and new masking tools in Photoshop; and support for fixed layout EPUB documents from InDesign. Adobe has also improved its Linked Smart Object support in Photoshop, which lets you embed documents such as Illustrator files while keeping them linked to the original. You can now convert embedded Smart Objects to Linked Smart Objects, and package linked files so you can share them with others while maintaining the links.

Adobe Muse (a web design tool) has been rewritten as a 64-bit native application (it was originally a Flash/Adobe AIR app).

The Creative Cloud Photography Plan, which was first announced as a limited offer, is now available indefinitely at £8.78 per month (perhaps it is a round number in dollars?)

Resilience is not backup: how lost its data and its business

This morning’s Twitter feed informed me of the closure of, a company offering a repository and project management service to developers, using Git or subversion.

The reason was a malicious intrusion into its admin console for Amazon Web Services, which the company used as the back end for its services. The intruder demanded money, and when that was not forthcoming, deleted a large amount of data.


An unauthorised person who at this point who is still unknown (All we can say is that we have no reason to think its anyone who is or was employed with Code Spaces) had gained access to our Amazon EC2 control panel and had left a number of messages for us to contact them using a hotmail address

Reaching out to the address started a chain of events that revolved around the person trying to extort a large fee in order to resolve the DDOS.

Upon realisation that somebody had access to our control panel we started to investigate how access had been gained and what access that person had to data in our systems, it became clear that so far no machine access had been achieved due to the intruder not having our Private Keys.

At this point we took action to take control back of our panel by changing passwords, however the intruder had prepared for this and had a already created a number backup logins to the panel and upon seeing us make the attempted recovery of the account he locked us down to a non-admin user and proceeded to randomly delete artefacts from the panel. We finally managed to get our panel access back but not before he has removed all EBS snapshots, S3 buckets, all AMI’s, some EBS instances and several machine instances.

In summary, most of our data, backups, machine configurations and offsite backups were either partially or completely deleted.

According to the statement, the company is no longer viable and will cease trading. Some data has survived and customers are advised to contact support and recover what they can.


It is a horrible situation both for the company and its customers.

How can these kinds of risk be avoided? That is the question, and it is complex. Both backup and security are difficult.

Cloud providers such as Amazon offer excellent resilience and redundancy. That is, if a hard drive or a server fails, other copies are available and there should be no loss of data, or at worst, only a tiny amount.

Resilience is not backup though, and if you delete data, the systems will dutifully delete it on all your copies.

Backup is necessary in order to be able to go back in time. System administrators have all encountered users who demand recovery of documents they themselves deleted.

The piece that puzzles me about the CodeSpaces story is that the intruder deleted off-site backups. I presume therefore that these backups were online and accessible from the same admin console, a single point of failure.

As it happens, I attended Cloud World Forum yesterday in London and noticed a stand from Spanning, which offers cloud backup for Google Apps,, and coming soon, Office 365. I remarked light-heartedly that surely the cloud never fails; and was told that yes, the cloud never fails, but you can still lose data from human error, sync errors or malicious intruders. Indeed.

Is there a glimmer of hope for CodeSpaces – is it possible that Amazon Web Services can go back in time and restore customer data that was mistakenly or maliciously deleted? I presume from the gloomy statement that it cannot (though I am asking Amazon); but if this is something the public cloud cannot provide, then some other strategy is needed to fill that gap.

A tale of two Lumias: snaps on a Lumia 630 versus a Lumia 1020

I spent a morning in Oxford taking some snaps and thought it would be fun to compare what a budget Windows Smartphone – the new Nokia Lumia 630 – can do versus the king of photography smartphones, the Nokia Lumia 1020.

Note this is not intended as a fair comparison; the 1020 costs around four times as much as the 630. It does show what you are giving up if you use a budget smartphone for all your snaps. In each case, you can click the image to see the full resolution.

Here is the Bodleian Library on the 630:


and on the 1020, using the 5MP version (the 1020 also stores a high res version of each image):


Next, Pembroke College on the 630:


and on the 1020:



Some flowers at the corner of Pembroke’s Chapel Quad, on the 630:


and on the 1020:


The difference is more telling if you zoom in. Here is a detail taken from a picture of Broad Street on the 630:


and on the 1020:


What about the high-res versions of the Lumia 1020 snaps? Here is a picture of Oxford’s “Bridge of Sighs”:


Let’s zoom in to look at the sculpture on the bridge. This is from the 5MP version, which I’ve enlarged slightly:


Here is the same section taken from the high-res 34MP image:


I consider the improvement well worthwhile; it does pay to hang on to those high-res images for the pictures you most value.

I snapped this on the 630 too; here is the same zoomed-in and enlarged section:



Conclusion? The camera on the Lumia 630 is not too bad – for a cheap smartphone. The Lumia 1020 is something special and I am grateful to Nokia for delivering a smartphone with a camera good enough that I can leave a standalone camera out of my bag – noting that I am not a photographer, just a traveller who takes pictures. I have not used a tripod on any of the above; from my perspective, coping with camera shake is one of the characteristics I need in whatever camera I use.

Review: Nokia Lumia 630 – a lot of smartphone for the money

Microsoft/Nokia has released the Lumia 630 Windows Phone in the UK. It is notable for two reasons:

  • The first phone on sale with Windows Phone 8.1 installed
  • A budget contender with a full range of features at around £100. For example, offer it for £99.99 with a “Pay & Go” tariff from £10.00 monthly. is currently offering it sim-free for £128.29.

The quick summary:

  • 4.5″ 854×480 LCD screen
  • 5MP rear camera
  • 512MB RAM
  • 8GB storage
  • MicroSD slot supporting up to 128GB
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 quad-core 1.2 GHz processor
  • Bluetooth 4.0, wi-fi, WCDMA,GSM,A-GPS etc
  • 1830 mAh removable battery

What is missing? Among the compromises here, there is no front-facing camera, the only sensor is an accelerometer, the screen resolution is poor compared to a high-end smartphone, and there is no dedicated camera button.

The older Lumia 625 has some features missing on the 630, including a camera button, LED Flash, ambient light sensor and proximity sensor, Nokia’s “super sensitive touch” screen, and LTE. The 625 is a similar price, so if those features matter to you it might be a better buy, though you have to put up with the older and slower S4 processor.

The Lumia 630 does support Nokia’s SensorCore feature, which lets apps like Health & Fitness (pre-installed) track movement through an API without consuming much power.

The lack of a camera button or Flash is disappointing, considering Nokia’s reputation as a brand good for photography.

Out of the box


The Lumia 630 is a basic package. No headset is included, presumably on the grounds that you likely have one already, though buying one separately is inexpensive. There is a mains charger; you probably have one of these already too, but it might not be optimal for this particular device, which may be why Nokia chose to prioritise this over the headset.

In order to fit the SIM, you pop the phone out of its shell; it feels if anything a bit too easy, though the phone shows no sign of falling apart accidentally so far.


The software of course is Windows Phone 8.1, with several nice improvements including a notification screen accessed by swiping down from the top. This works even from the lock screen, and gives immediate access to the camera, which may explain why the button is missing. I still miss the button though.


Cortana, the virtual personal assistant currently in beta, is not yet present in the UK. You can enable Cortana with a bit of effort by changing your language and region, but it is not recommended other than for temporary experimentation.

I hit one problem in setup. The automatic date and time setting does not work, at least not with my carrier (Three). This in turn broke some other features including SkyDrive and Exchange/Office 365 email, until I set it manually. The manual setting is not brilliant though, since when I turned the set off and on again, it came up with a setting from several days ago. This looks like a software bug so I hope it will be fixed soon.

Here is the home screen pretty much out of the box, though I have connected it to Exchange:


This is NOT how I prefer to set up my home screen on a Windows phone. Normally I reduce all the tiles to the smallest size other than the phone icon, which I have large so I can hit it as easily as possible. This fits more icons on the screen and gets rid of the annoying People live tile animations. This is, of course, a matter of personal preference.

The apps prominent above the fold include PhotoBeamer, which lets you show pictures on a friend’s Windows Phone (a cool app), LINE which is a messaging app, and the excellent HERE maps and Nokia Camera.

Scroll down and you get Facebook, Skype, HERE Drive, Nokia Mix Radio, OneDrive, calendar and several more.

A word about apps

I do not intend this to be another reviews of a Windows Phone which say, “great phone but the apps are lacking.” It is true to the extent that Windows Phone lacks the great support with iOS and Android get in terms of apps. Windows Phone owners have to put up with seeing “available for iOS and Android” for apps which they might  otherwise like to install, and with apps that are less well maintained or up to date than those for the two more popular platforms.

Clearly, the way to fix this is for lots more people to buy Windows Phones. Therefore, not to buy a Windows Phone because of the app shortage merely perpetuates the problem.

But how bad is it? The answer will be different depending which apps matter to you; but there are a couple of reasons why it is not, in my opinion, all that bad.

One is that Microsoft has its own platform, putting it in a stronger position than say, Blackberry or even Apple (if iOS were not already popular). The Microsoft platform includes maps and driving (Nokia), search (Bing), messaging (Skype), email and cloud documents (Office 365) and online storage (OneDrive).

Second, the Windows app store is not as moribund as the Windows 8 app store. There are decent apps in most categories and support from third parties like Spotify, WhatsApp, Instagram or the BBC is improving.

If you love Google, this is unlikely to be the phone for you, since it seems almost to go out of its way not to support Windows Phone.

On the other hand, there are Windows Phone apps which I miss on other platforms, including Nokia Camera, HERE Drive, and the built-in email and calendar apps.

It is a factor, but not a showstopper.

Lumia 630 in use

My experience of using the 630 is mainly positive. Performance is great; the phone is fast and responsive. Battery life is good too:


Note that the Battery Saver is off by default, but I prefer having it come on automatically as needed.

Battery life is nothing special if you use the phone intensively, such as to watch a video or play a game, but when it on standby it is better than previous Windows phones I have tried.

The camera is better than I had expected, given the annoyances mentioned above. For casual snaps it is up to the mark you would expect from a budget smartphone.

This is not PureView though; do not expect the same quality as on Nokia’s high-end phones. See here for some comparative snaps.

Audio on the Lumia 630 sounds fine when played with a high quality headset. I played the same track on the 630, the Lumia 1020, and from a PC via a dedicated headphone amplifer. Possibly the 630 sounds slightly thin compared to the more expensive setups, but the earbuds or headphones you use will likely make the most difference.


Health and Fitness tracking, using the Bing app, is fun and saves having to manage a separate device like a Fitbit.


I have yet to catch out the 630 on performance. Youtube videos and BBC iPlayer played smoothly.

The display is on the dull side but no enough to spoil the experience. However I did notice grey marks (presumably shadows of the glue that holds the screen on) at the top of the screen, visible on light backgrounds, which is a slight annoyance.


The Lumia 630 is a budget smartphone with a lot to offer. There are just a few annoyances: features missing that were present on the 625, slightly dull screen, and some signs of cost-cutting. These are small blemishes though when you consider what you do get for a modest outlay.


Having it both ways: can Microsoft equally back Windows Phone and “Any device”?

I attended an event in London which was a kind-of UK launch for Windows Phone 8.1. The first Lumia device running 8.1, the Lumia 630, is now on sale, though this was not the main focus. It was more about asking businesses to take another look at Windows Phone (and Windows tablets), following improvements Microsoft has made. The company is particularly pleased with a new white paper from MobileIron, a well-known company in mobile device management, praising the new security and manageability features:

Windows Phone 8 did not meet the stringent policies some enterprises required for protecting corporate data and resources. The release of Windows Phone 8.1 changes the game. Microsoft is delivering a rich new feature-set for business users, and providing IT departments with the compliance and security they require. These new security and management features, called the Enterprise Feature Pack, are included as a core component of Windows Phone 8.1. When combined with an enterprise mobility management (EMM) platform, these capabilities make it much easier for enterprises to adopt the Windows Phone platform.

Fair enough, though from what I can tell Windows Phone is still struggling to get the momentum it needs. Too many companies perceive that if they support iOS and Android then that is it, job done, as evidenced by this advertisement I saw recently. This in turn dampens sales. It is an unfortunate position to be in, particularly given the good work Microsoft (and Nokia) has done on the phone OS itself. I prefer the Windows Phone user interface to that in Android, but still need an Android device in order to try out new apps.

This could change if Microsoft can continue gradually bumping up its market share, but it is tough. The wider company is now side-stepping the problem by focusing on its strengths in Office, Active Directory and Office 365, and offering first-class support for these on iOS and Android, as evidenced by the excellent Office for iPad launched earlier this year.

There is a dilemma here though. Some Windows Phone users choose the phone because they feel it will work best with Microsoft’s business platform. Could the “any device” policy end up undermining Microsoft’s efforts to promote Windows Phone?

I put this to Chris Weber, Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President of Mobile Device Sales, who has come to the company from Nokia (before which he was at Microsoft, so a true Windows veteran).


From a business perspective, providing cloud services, management, security, it is a multi-platform world. It is a great business decision for Microsoft to be multi-platform. Customers demand it as well.  That doesn’t mean we don’t want to create the most compelling platform and set of devices that bring Windows to life. I think the cross-platform thing is a great story … but the benefit of us [Nokia and Microsoft] coming together is now we have hardware, software and services that can be integrated in a totally different way, and we’re one of the few players that have all those components. The level of integration is much greater on the Windows platform. For example, Office is built in, you don’t have to go to a store and download it. The Linq client is built into the calendar. The email client, being able to have rights protection. The mail client itself is the best of any of them. The ability to access a SharePoint site across the firewall without a VPN connection, unique to Windows Phone.

Then we also have to win the end user. We have to win IT and those requirements, but you also have to get end users excited. Things that you see in 8.1, like Cortana, there’s a huge benefit there. And we’re bringing that across every price point.

Fair points; yet currently the iPad has a better touch-friendly Office than Windows tablets or Windows Phone; and Windows phone users have frustrations where the integration falls short. One remarkable thing, for example, is that there is no way to use a shared Exchange or SharePoint calendar on Windows Phone other than in the browser, so no integration with the built-in calendar or offline support.

What Weber describes, near-perfect integration between Windows mobile devices and Microsoft’s server applications, should be the case though; making this even better should be a high priority for CEO Satya Nadella’s new Microsoft.

Weber makes the bold claim that he can convert any user to Windows Phone, but says the challenge is to make this happen at retail level, when the customer wanders in looking for a smartphone:

If you give me fifteen minutes, I think I can convince any iPhone or Android user to move to Windows Phone. We have to do this not in fifteen minutes but in probably a minute and a half, at retail, with people who are selling multiple devices and are used to selling the competitor platform more than us.

Focusing on enterprise integration is in my view long overdue, and a few large enterprise adoptions would give Windows Phone a significant boost. At retail though, my guess is that Microsoft’s main hope is what Nokia did so well: delivering a good smartphone experience in budget devices – the “every price point” to which Weber refers.

Review: Sonocent Audio Notetaker, making sense of recorded interviews and meetings

Why bother taking written notes, when you can simply record the audio of a meeting or interview and listen to it later? I do this a lot, but it is problematic. You end up with an MP3 which has all the info within it, but with no quick way to find a half-remembered statement. Of course you can transcribe everything, or get it transcribed, but that is not quick; it will likely take longer than the original event if you want to transcribe it all, and even selective transcription is a slow process. You can get better at this, and I have formed a habit of noting times when I hear something which I am likely to refer to later, but standard audio players (such as Foobar 2000 or iTunes) are designed for music and not great for this kind of work.

There is also an annoying problem with application focus if you want to transcribe a recording. You have Word open, you have your recording open in Foobar, but to control Foobar you have to switch focus away from Word, which means you cannot type until you focus back. There are utilities around to overcome this – my solution was to write my own Word macro which can pause and rewind a recording with keyboard shortcuts – but it is another issue to fix.

Sonocent Audio Notetaker is an application for Windows or Mac dedicated to making sense of speech recordings. Audio Notetaker lets you create documents which include audio, text and images. If you have an existing audio recording, you can import it into a new Audio Notetaker documnent and start to work with it. The audio is copied into the document, rather than being added as a reference, so these documents tend to be large, a little larger than the original.

The primary feature is the the way recordings are visualised and navigated. When you import a recording, it shows as a series of bars in a large panel, rather than the single horizontal scrolling view that most audio players present. Each bar represents a phrase, determined by Audio Notetaker according to pauses in the speech. This is not altogether reliable since speakers may pause mid-phrase, but you can split or merge bars if needed. The length of each bar varies according to the content, but typically seems to be around 3-15 seconds. You navigate the recording by clicking on the bars, and annotate it by assigning colours to bars according to your own scheme, such as blue for a potential quote, or brown for “boring, skip this”.

If you are transcribing, you can type into either to two text panes, one of which is called Reference and the other just Text. When you are typing in one of these panes, you can use keyboard shortcuts to control the audio, such as Ctrl+Space for play/pause, Ctrl+\ to skip back, and Ctrl+/ to skip forward. The Reference and Text panes are functionally identical, but let you keep two different types of notes with one recording. There is also an image pane, which can include images, PDFs or PowerPoint presentations.


How do you synchronise your notes or transcription with the audio to which it relates? Audio Notetaker does not do this automatically, but does allow you to insert section breaks which split the document into vertical sections. You can create these breaks with keyboard shortcuts. I would prefer it if Audio Notetaker automatically set hotlinks so that I could tell exactly what audio was playing when I made a note, but sections are nevertheless useful.

For example, if you have an interview, a logical approach would be to make each question and each answer a section. Then you can easily navigate to the answer you want.

You can use background colouring to further distinguish between sections.

A common problem with audio recordings is that they are at too low a level. Audio Notetaker has its own volume control which can boost the volume beyond what is possible with the Windows volume control.

There is also a noise cancellation button, to remove the dreaded hiss.


Advanced features

Those are the basics; but Audio Notetaker has a few other capabilities.

One idea is that you might want to record the content of an online conference. For this purpose, you can record from any of your input or output devices (it might seem strange to record from an output device, but this is the equivalent of a “what you hear” setting).


This approach is further supported by the ability to capture a screen and insert it into the document. When you choose the screen capture tool, you get a moveable, resizeable frame that you position over the area you want to capture.


Another scenario is that you want to create a simple video with a PowerPoint slide show and an audio voiceover. You can do this by importing the PowerPoint and recording your speech, then choosing Export Audio and Images as Video (MP4 or WMV).


You can also export the text and images in RTF format (suitable for most word processors).

Internally, Audio Notetaker uses Opus Audio Encoding which is an internet standard.

You can also have Audio Notetaker read back text to you using the Windows text to speech engine (I am not sure how this works on a Mac).

Final words

The best feature of Audio Notetaker is the way it lets you navigate an audio file. It is quicker to click on a bar in the panel than using a horizontal scroller or noting the time and going to that point.

The sections work OK but I would personally like some way of embedding notes that are hotlinked to points in the audio with a finer granularity than sections.

I am not sure of the value of features like importing PowerPoint slides, adding audio, and exporting as a video, when PowerPoint itself has support for narrations and export to video. I would prefer it if the developers focused on the core proposition in Audio Notetaker: making it easy to index, annotate and navigate speech recordings.

I would also like to see integration with a transcription service. Automated transcription would be great but does not usually work well with typical field recordings; more realistically, perhaps Sonocent could integrate with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk or another service where humans will transcribe your recording for a fee.

Nevertheless, Audio Notetaker is nicely designed software that addresses a poorly-served niche; well worth consideration for journalists, students, secretaries, takers of minutes, or anyone who uses audio recordings as part of their workflow.

You can find Audio Notetaker on the Sonocent site, and obtain it as a free trial, or by subscription for a period, or with a perpetual licence. For example, six months for an individual license is £29.99; a perpetual licence is £95.99 (including VAT).

It is available for PC or Mac.