Fixing OneDrive Camera upload on Android

A feature of Microsoft’s OneDrive cloud storage is that you can set it to upload photos from your smartphone automatically. It is a handy feature, in part as a backup in case the you lose your mobile, and in part because it lets you easily get to them on your PC or Mac, for editing, printing or sharing.

This feature used to work reliably on Windows Phone but I have not found it so good on Android. Photos never seem to upload in the background, but only when you open the OneDrive app and tap Photos. Even then, it seems to stop uploading from time to time, as if everything is up to date when it is not.

The fix that I have found is to open OneDrive settings by tapping the Me icon (not a particularly intuitive place to find settings, but never mind).

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Then I turn Camera upload off. Go back to Photos. Go back to settings and turn Camera upload on again. It always kicks it back into life.

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It is worth noting of course that Google Photos also has this feature and it is likely to be enabled, unless you specifically took care not to enable it. And  cloud storage of photos on Google is free if you choose “High quality” for upload size. If you choose “Original” for upload size, you get 15GB free photo storage.

This being the case, why bother with OneDrive camera upload? A few reasons I can think of:

1. The Windows 10 Photos app integrates with OneDrive, showing previews of your images without downloading them and letting you download on demand.

2. You might have more space on OneDrive, especially if you use OneDrive for Business, which is now in beta

3. In a business context, automatic upload to OneDrive for Business has great potential. Think surveyors, engineers, medicine, anyone who does site visits for work

4. For consumers, it probably does not make sense to spread your stuff across both a Microsoft account and a Google account. If you have picked Microsoft, maybe because you use Windows or because you would rather trust Microsoft than Google with your personal data, then you would want your photos to be in OneDrive rather than Google Photos.

It is therefore unfortunate that in my experience it does now work right. I am not sure if this is just a bug in the app, or something to do with Android. In the end though, it is just another niggly thing that pushes Android users away from Microsoft and towards Google services.

The best apps for a Windows 10 PC? Disappointing list shows key Windows weakness

I happened across Tom Warren’s list of 9 best apps for your new Windows PC and it gave me pause for thought. You may love some of those apps – Tweeten, Wox, ShareX, for example – but as it happens I don’t use any of them and it strikes me as a weak list.

There are reasons for this and it is not Warren’s fault (though of course you can argue with his selection, that’s really the point of this kind of post).

The most essential app for Windows is Microsoft Office. In business environments a new Windows 10 installation may only need Office, or Office and perhaps a few custom business applications, and it is ready to go.

You might add Chrome or Firefox if you want to avoid Edge (I use Edge and find it pretty good), and you probably want Adobe Reader or equivalent as Edge is not that good for PDFs.

There are other fantastic commercial applications of course, not least Adobe’s amazing Creative Cloud, and of course stalwarts like AutoCAD.

These expensive business applications are not the kind of thing you want to list in a consumer-oriented post though. So you end up desperately searching the Windows Store for apps that deserve to be on a “best apps” list. It is not easy.

The core problem is that Microsoft expended considerable energy telling developers not to bother with classic Windows desktop applications but to target the Windows Runtime, later reworked as UWP (Universal Windows Platform). Then with Windows 10 (and the abandonment of Windows 10 mobile) UWP became rather pointless. You can debate this back and forth, but the net result is that much of the life was sucked out of the Windows developer ecosystem, even though Windows remains popular.

I don’t see this changing and it will not help Microsoft sustain Windows market share versus Google Chrome OS and Apple iPad Pro. From a consumer perspective, an iPad now has vastly better apps than Windows.

Incidentally, my favourite free Windows apps are Visual Studio Code, Filezilla, Putty, Notepad++, Paint.NET, Audacity, Foobar2000 and Open Live Writer. And stuff I have installed in Windows Subsystem for Linux (Ubuntu) though I am not sure if that counts.

David Bowie Is app: Floating in a most peculiar way

The exhibition David Bowie Is, originally at the Victoria and Albert museum in London and subsequently on tour around the world, has proved an enormous success with over 2 million visitors in 12 locations. Sony Entertainment has now released David Bowie Is AR Exhibition, an app for iOS and Android that uses Augmented Reality to enable users to enjoy the exhibition at home and whenever they like.

I found the app though-provoking. I am a fan of course, so keen to see the material; and I attended the London exhibition twice so I have some context.

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I tried the app on an Honor 10 AI – note that you have to download the Google ARCore library first, if it is not already installed. Then I ran the app and found it somewhat frustrating. When the app starts up, you get a calibrating screen and this has to complete before you can progress.

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If you struggle at all with this, I recommend having a look at the help, which says to “Find a well-lit surface with a visible pattern or a few flat items on it. A magazine on a desk or table works well.” Another tip is that the app is designed for a table-top experience. So sit at a desk, do not try walking around and using a wall.

The app streams a lot of data. So if you are on a poor connection, expect to wait while the orange thermometer bar fills up at the bottom of the screen. The streaming/caching could probably be much improved.

Once I got the app working I began to warm to it. You can think of it as a series of pages or virtual rooms. Each room has an array of object in it, and you tap an object to bring it into view. Once an object is focused like this, you can zoom in by moving the phone. Pinch to zoom should work too though I had some problems with it.

Here is a view of the recording page:

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and here I’ve brought a page of Bowie’s notes into view (note the caption which appears) and zoomed in; the resolution is good.

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The clever bit is that you can move objects around by tap and drag. This is a nice feature when viewing Bowie’s cut-up lyric technique, since you can drag the pieces around to exercise your own creativity.

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Fair enough, but is this really Augmented Reality? I’d argue not, since it does not mix the real world with the virtual world. It just uses the AR platform as a viewer into this virtualised environment.

The experience is good when it works, but not if you get disappearing content, endless “calibration”, stuttering videos, or content that is too small and stubbornly refuses to come into view – all issues which I encountered. It also requires a fairly high-end phone or tablet. So your environment has to be just right for it to work; not ideal for enjoying on a train journey, for example. And some of the content is literally shaky; I think this is a bug and may improve with an update.

Would it be better if it were presented in a more traditional ways, as a database of items which you could search and view? Unfortunately I think it would. This would also reduce the system requirements and enable more people to enjoy it.

It does look as if there is a lot here. According to the site:

56 costumes
38 songs
23 music videos
60 original lyric sheets
50 photos
33 drawings and sketches
7 paintings

I would love to be able to look up these items easily. Instead I have to hunt through the virtual rooms and hope I can find what I am looking for. Just like a real exhibition, complete with crowds and kids wanting toilets I guess. 

Unlimited free private repositories come to GitHub

When I was looking for an online code repository some years back, I picked Visual Studio Online (now called Azure DevOps) over GitHub. The main reason was the ability to host private repositories with a free account. The projects I work on typically only have one or two developers.

Microsoft acquired GitHub last year and has now announced free private repositories on GitHub – provided you have no more than three collaborators. You can see all the plans here.

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There is still a bias towards open source, in that open source developers can use the Team plan for free. This is essential for GitHub to fulfil its role as the home of many widely used open source projects.

The addition of free private repositories is significant though. There are plenty of developers like myself who will now look again at hosting code on GitHub.

What is Microsoft’s strategy? There seem to me two important reasons why Microsoft acquired GitHub. One was as a defensive measure. Microsoft now has a ton of open source projects that are critical to its platform, things like .NET Core and now most of the .NET frameworks as well. It would have been uncomfortable if a rival like Google had acquired GitHub.

The second is to promote Azure. GitHub’s infrastructure will no doubt move to Azure, and all going well the service will promote Azure both as an example of a successful at-scale service, and by little ads and signposts that Microsoft can include. The developer audience is influential when it comes to platform choices.

Microsoft therefore does not need GitHub to be profitable, which is just as well having now removed one of the main incentives to get a paid account.

I will be interested to see how the company moves to further integrate GitHub and Azure DevOps. There is currently quite a lot of overlap and it would make sense to streamline the offerings to share the same back-end technology, or even to fold Azure DevOps services into GitHub.

There is no hurry. Microsoft’s priority will be to keep existing GitHub developers happy and to convince them that the acquisition will do no harm.

Desktop development: is Electron the answer, or a tragedy?

A few weeks ago InfoQ posted a session by Paul Betts on Desktop Applications in Electron. Betts worked on Slack Desktop, which he says was one of the first Electron apps after the Atom editor. There is a transcript as well as a video (which is great for text-oriented people like myself).

Electron, in case you missed it, is a framework for building desktop applications with Chromium, Google’s open source browser on which Chrome is based, and Node.js. In that it uses web technology for desktop applications, it is a similar concept to older frameworks like Apache Cordova/PhoneGap, though Electron only targets Windows, macOS and Linux, not mobile platforms, and is specific to a particular browser engine and JavaScript runtime.

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Electron is popular as a quick route to cross-platform desktop applications. It is particularly attractive if you come from a web development background since you can use many of the same libraries and skills.

Betts says:

Electron is a way to build desktop applications that run on Mac and Linux and Windows PCs using web technologies. So we don’t have to use things like Cocoa or WPF or Windows Forms; these things from the 90s. We can use web technology and reuse a lot of the pieces we’ve used to build our websites, to build desktop applications. And that’s really cool because it means that we can do interesting desktop-y things like, open users’ files and documents and stuff like that, and show notifications and kind of do things that desktop apps can do. But we can do them in less than the bazillion years it will take you to write WPF and Coco apps. So that’s cool.

There are many helpful tips in this session, but the comment posted above gave me pause for thought. You can get excellent results from Electron: look no further than Visual Studio Code which in just a few years (first release was April 2015) has become one of the most popular development tools of all time.

At the same time, I am reluctant to dismiss native code desktop development as yesterday’s thing. John Gruber articulates the problem in his piece about Electron and the decline of native apps.

As un-Mac-like as Word 6 was, it was far more Mac-like then than Google Docs running inside a Chrome tab is today. Google Docs on Chrome is an un-Mac-like word processor running inside an ever-more-un-Mac-like web browser. What the Mac market flatly rejected as un-Mac-like in 1996 was better than what the Mac market tolerates, seemingly happily, today. Software no longer needs to be Mac-like to succeed on the Mac today. That’s a tragedy.

Unlike Gruber I am not a Mac person but even on Windows I love the performance and integration of native applications that look right, feel right, and take full advantage of the platform.

As a developer I also prefer C# to JavaScript but that is perhaps more incidental – though it shows how far-sighted C# inventor Anders Hejlsberg was when he shifted to work on TypeScript, another super popular open source project from Microsoft.