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.

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It is made of smartphones, as this close up of a leg shows.

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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.

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Unfortunately I cannot remember what this is promoting!

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.

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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.

Nokia Drive on the Lumia: it works

Over the weekend I took the opportunity to try out Nokia Drive, a turn-by-turn navigation app which comes bundled in the Lumia 800 I have been testing. Well, it was not so much “took the opportunity” as “try anything”, since the Tom Tom the driver was relying on had lost its signal somewhere in the depths of rural England.

I fired up Nokia Drive, entered the destination, and was impressed. It picked up a signal, displayed a well-designed screen stating what was the next turn and how far away, showed our location and progress complete with the road name, and spoke out clear instructions in a voice that was less robotic than some.

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I was a passenger in this case; how does this work if you are the driver? It turns out that Nokia Drive disables the screen saver (which developers can do with a couple of lines of code – check out UserIdleDetectionMode) so it runs continuously. This is a battery drain, so for longer journeys you will need some sort of car kit; you can get by with just a bracket to hold the phone and a standard micro USB power supply.

For basic navigation this seems to me as good as a Tom Tom though there are a few things missing. You cannot calculate a route offline, it does not show time to destination, and it does not have speed camera warnings.

Nevertheless, a significant benefit for Nokia’s Windows Phone users.

Microsoft puts carriers before users in new Windows Phone update which you might not get

Microsoft has posted a new update for Windows Phone, update 7.10.8107.79. The list of fixes is here, not huge, but including one fix for an issue that has irritated many users:

On-screen keyboard. Fixes an issue to prevent the keyboard from disappearing during typing

But will you get the fix? The real news in Microsoft’s blog post announcing the release is this:

The update, available to all carriers that request it …

Microsoft is also discontinuing its Where’s My Phone update site:

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Why? Microsoft General Manager Eric Hautala is blaming growth in the number of model, country and carrier variations. That makes the site more work to keep up to date, but no less useful for users.

So what is going on? When Microsoft ditched Windows Mobile for Windows Phone, it sought to learn a lesson from Apple and to provide consistency in user experience, hardware and software. One important part of that is to control updates, so that users do not have to wait for carriers to authorise updates (or not to bother), but get them in a timely manner. This is a potentially a selling point against Android, where users have difficulty getting updates, especially on older devices.

In March last year, Hautala said:

There’s one more thing I want to clear up. I’ve seen a lot of speculation on blogs and forums lately about whether carriers can “block” an update. We work closely with carriers to test and schedule updates. They may ask us for a specific date to start an update. They may ask for updates to be bundled together. But you should ultimately receive all the updates we send out [emphasis mine].

Microsoft now seems to be back-tracking on this commitment, though we need clarification. It is possible that all devices will eventually get the fixes, though not necessarily in this release but in a future roll-up. Check the comments though: users fear the worst.

For background, I recommend you read my piece from February 2010, before the launch of Windows Phone, where Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer, Joe Belfiore and Andy Lees discuss the partner problem.

One further thought: if Microsoft is losing control over its partners, this represents an opportunity for specific partners to make the commitments that Microsoft is backing away from. How about it Nokia?

Update: Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore tweets:

ps – on updates, pls don’t overreact, our focus is on users first! As greg said “nothing has changed” in how we work w carriers on updates.

Greg is Greg Sullivan, Senior Product Manager on Windows Phone.

This still strikes me as a worrying development for users though. The disappearing keyboard bug is troublesome. How can a user find out when they will get the fix? “Ask your carrier” is all very well, but many find carriers unresponsive on this kind of issue.

An Apple iPad Christmas

The Apple iPad had a stunning Christmas – at least, it did in my part of the world.

A key factor was that EA Games decided to offer a range of classic board games adapted as iPad apps for 69p ($0.90)  each. So for less than the cost of a takeaway pizza I downloaded Scrabble, Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit and Risk.

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The games are not perfect – Scrabble accepts all sorts of odd words and US spellings, for example – but they are official licensed versions, nicely implemented, and a lot of nostalgic fun, which is the idea after all.

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Trivial Pursuit supports in-game purchases for extra questions, so that could work out more expensive eventually, but nobody could complain about the value.

It is not quite the full board game experience, with wine spilt on the pieces, junior tipping over the board in disgust, and game abandoned early because it is time to visit grandma, but the changes are mostly for the better.

One thought: this is another example of how well a tablet substitutes for physical things. A book, a board game, a photo album: the iPad is a better replacement than a PC or laptop, easily passed round, long battery life, no flapping screen, and a more natural user interface.

I am not sure what are the economics of selling games at 69p, but no doubt EA has drawn the graphs. Currently EA 69p games occupy four of the “Top Paid iPad Apps” category slots in the UK store.

Of course I am interested in the big picture. Looking at user reviews of Android equivalents like Monopoly I get the impression that there are more bugs, partly because EA has a dedicated iPad verson for these games whereas the Android versions are universal across multiple screen sizes, and partly because there are more OS versions and hardware differences to accommodate.

What about other tablets or new entrants to the market like Windows 8 in 2012? Prising users away from their Apple devices will not be easy, though I still think Microsoft has chances if it plays to its strengths in business applications.

What will it take to make Windows Phone a success?

Microsoft made a splash in New York City yesterday with a giant Windows Phone in Herald Square.

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The idea I guess was to show how each “Live tile” is a window into a feature of the device, with a special emphasis on “people” – the way Windows Phone aggregates Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Windows Live and more into a single feed and tile.

This is the kind of stunt you get when a huge corporation with a lot of money to spend is trying to muscle its way into a market.

Is it enough? It does feel as if Microsoft has managed the re-launch of Windows Phone better than its first effort around a year ago – the first devices went on sale in October 2010. The operating system has been tweaked, the new devices are more imaginative, and partner support seems better. I actually saw some window displays for Windows Phone in my local small town though they were gone a few days later.

It still feels as if Microsoft is fighting an uphill battle. There is not much wrong with the phones now, but what is the killer feature that will sell it alongside Android and iPhone? Personally I like the SharePoint integration, but Microsoft is still primarily going after consumers rather than business users.

There is also the matter of the tiles. They work well, but look at the photo above: are they beautiful? Not really; and it is unfortunate in some ways that all the Windows Phones look like this.

That said, I enjoyed my few minutes with an HTC Titan; it has an exceptionally large display and a great camera but does not feel too bulky, and I can see it doing well if the marketing is right. Nokia’s Lumia 800 looks good too.

Microsoft came late into this market though, persevering with its old Windows Mobile for too long, and it is not going to be easy to catch up.

Kingston Wi-Drive extends iOS storage, but not hassle-free

I have been trying out the Kingston Wi-Drive, which expands the storage of an iOS device using a pocketable wireless solid-state drive.

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The unit is about the size of a mobile phone, but smoother and lighter, and available with capacity of 16GB or 32GB.

The drive comes with a minimalist instruction leaflet which tells you to charge it by attaching the USB cable to a PC or Mac, add content by accessing it as an external drive, and then when charged, download and run the free Wi-Drive app on your iPad or iPhone.

I got this working without too much trouble. I added a movie to the drive and was able to watch it on an iPad, which is handy given that there is no DVD drive, though if it was sourced from a DVD you have to work out how to rip the DVD to a file first. I also added some documents and pictures, and was able to view these on iOS without any issues.

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The app seems to be designed primarily for iPhone, which means it looks a little odd on an iPad, though it does run full-screen. There is a thumbnail view, for images, and for documents there is an option to open them in apps that understand the file format. For example, I could open a Word 2010 document in Pages.

So far so good; but I found some annoyances. The first is that when you connect to the Wi-Drive, you are no longer connected to the Internet unless you also have 3G. The solution is to go into the Wi-Drive settings and configure your normal wi-fi connection as a bridge. The leaflet does not mention this, but it is explained here.

The bridge did not work at first. I had to change my Netgear router so that it is WPA 2 only, rather than supporting both WPA and WPA 2. This is mentioned in the FAQ:

Wi-Drive’s bridge function supports a single security protocol only: WEP, WPA, or WPA2. These may also appear as WPA ONLY, WPA2 ONLY, etc. Wi-Drive does NOT support mixed mode.

I also configured security on the Wi-Drive wi-fi connection. By default, it is wide open to your neighbours; and if you have the bridge enabled, bypasses the security of your home wi-fi connection as well. On the other hand, the fact that up to three users can connect is a good thing if, for example, you wanted to share some files with friends or colleagues at a meeting.

If you are using the device on the road, in a cafe or airport for example, it would be difficult to connect to the internet as well as to the drive. If you are flying, the airline will probably not allow you to use the Wi-Drive.

Most annoying is that when the device is connected to a computer, the contents become inaccessible. Even connecting to a USB charger seems to be enough to disable it. When it is not connected to a computer, the battery starts running down; it only lasts 4 hours.

This means that you should not think of the Wi-Drive as permanently attached storage. Rather, think of it as something you can switch on when needed.

Poking around on the drive, I noticed that it has the Apache web server installed. When the bridge is operating, you can browse to the device from a web browser on your computer and access the contents or change the settings.

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This is a handy device; but it could be better. I would like to see a memory card slot – and Kingston would benefit as it sells memory cards – as well as a longer battery life. Kingston also needs to fix it so you can use it on iOS while it is connected to a computer and charging. The Wi-Drive app could do with a bit more polish too, particularly the iPad version.

As it is, the Wi-Drive is great if it exactly fits your need, but make sure you can live with it before parting with your money.

Drobo storage devices: beyond RAID

I attended Digital Winter in London this week, an event where gadgets are shown to the press.

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One that caught my eye was the Drobo range of storage devices. The market is saturated with external storage solutions, but Drobo has a neat system where you simply slot any 3.5” Sata drive – no drive bracket required – into one of its units and it will add it to a pool of storage. Drobo supports thin provisioning, which means you will typically create a volume on the pool that is bigger than the space actually available. When you are running out of space, a light on the unit will turn yellow, you buy another drive and slot it in. Presuming you have two or more drives, RAID-like resiliency is built in, though Drobo calls its system BeyondRAID because of its greater flexibility. There is even an option for dual disk redundancy, so that any two drives can fail without loss of data.

I was reminded of Microsoft’s new Storage Spaces in Windows Server 8 which offers some similar features, but of course is not yet available except in early preview.

Drobo boxes support USB, FireWire, and in the high-end models iSCSI.

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The snag: prices start at €359,00 for the 4 Bay firewire and USB 2.0 model, and the one you really want, the 8-bay DroboPro with iSCSI, is €1359.00. In the business range, the 12-bay iSCSI SAN is €10,799 and supports SAS as well as Sata drives.

Kingston Wi-Drive: portable storage expansion for iPad and iPhone

Kingston has announced availability of the Wi-Drive. This product addresses an annoying limitation of the Apple iPhone and iPad: no USB port for external storage devices.

The Wi-Drive overcomes this by connecting wirelessly. It offers 16GB or 32GB of solid-state storage, with USB for charging and for access to the files from a PC or Mac. When you are on the go, you can put the Wi-Drive into your pocket. A free app on the iPhone, iPad or iTouch lets you access the files. The use of a network bridging means you can still access the internet. Battery life is said to be up to 4 hours, so I hope you can switch it off when not needed. You can also share the drive with up to three other users.

Example prices are £89.99 for the 16GB or £124.98 for the 32GB version.

It is a clever solution. That said, I have a couple of reservations. One is that the price is high compared to a simple USB device of the same capacity. That is not unreasonable given the extra technology needed, but it means it will only sell to users who really need it.

And do you need it? If you are on the internet, you could use a file synchronization service like Dropbox, or Apple’s own iDisk or forthcoming iCloud, to extend storage instead.

A second problem is that iOS does not expose its file system to the user. This means that external storage is less convenient on iOS than on other systems. Want to save a Pages document from iOS to the Wi-Drive? You probably cannot do so directly; there is no way to save direction to Dropbox either.

The Wi-Drive only exists because of Apple’s desire to control and supposedly simplify the operating system. It is a workaround, but not a perfect one, although that is not the fault of Kingston.

That said, I have not yet tried a Wi-Drive; I hope to bring you a proper review in due course.

Monitor your home when away: Jabbakam IP camera service reviewed

About to head off for your summer break? What may happen back home is always a concern; but if you want a bit more piece of mind, how about a live webcam view of what is going on in places you care about?

Of course you can easily purchase a security camera kit from your favourite electronic hobbyist store, but it is not a complete solution. Recording video to a hard drive is all very well, but what if the thief takes a hammer to it or even nabs it? Further, returning home to find two-week old footage of a break-in is of limited use compared to a live alert.

In other words, you need not only a camera but also a service. This used to be expensive, but does not need to be in the internet era. What about a cheap camera that sends images to a web site, enabling you to log in from anywhere and check what is going on? And how about an email or SMS alert triggered by motion detection?

This is exactly what Jabbakam does. The basic kit costs £59.95 and £5.95 per month, for which you get an IP camera and 14 days of video footage stored online. You can also use your own camera if you have a suitable one; the main requirement is that it supports motion detection, enabling the alerting feature, and reducing the number of images that need to be sent to the web service. More expensive subscriptions store video for longer; £13.95 per month gets you 90 days. SMS alerts cost extra.

Developed by a company based in Guernsey, the product is not so much the camera, but rather the web application and service. The camera itself is a simple but well-made affair, with a wall-mountable bracket and a swivel joint that lets you angle it. You can also adjust focus by twisting the lens.

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Under the webcam are ports for wired Ethernet and power.

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Given that the serial number starts YCAM I have a hunch it may be made for Jabbakam by Y-cam.

The camera must be wired to your broadband router. If you are on a business network you may have firewall issues; I tried on my own network and found it did not work behind the firewall, but have not investigated in detail.

So how about the service? I signed into Jabbakam and found that set-up was pretty much IJW (It Just Works). The camera was detected and I could view live images. Video is a slightly generous term, since each image is one second apart, and the quality is not fantastic, but gives you a good idea of what is happening. You can add additional cameras if you want fuller coverage of your home or workplace.

I also set up email alerting. This seems to work well. When the camera detects movement you get an email with a still image attached. Click the link in the email, and you can view the video. There is also an iPhone app that shows recent images. Advanced settings let you schedule alerts, for example to avoid having them active when you yourself are moving around.

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Jabbakam is not just intended for security. The web service also has the concept of networks, which enable you to share your camera with others. The number is small at the moment, but I did see one called Birdboxes of Jabbakam which I guess is for ornithology enthusiasts.

There was one aspect of Jabbakam that I found troubling. A mash-up with Google Maps lets you see where cameras of other users are installed, and clicking on a camera gives you the name and address of the user and a link to send a private message:

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I discovered that this information sharing is on by default:

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This surprised me, as I would have thought that a typical Jabbakam user would be sensitive about sharing these details.

Finally, I should mention that Jabbakam has a RESTful API for developers, though the documentation is incomplete at the moment and the application showcase is empty. Apparently this is being worked on, so watch the space if you are interested.

A good buy? On the plus side, Jabbakam seems to me nicely done, easy to set up, and delivers what is claimed: remote video monitoring of any indoor location. The alert service is particularly useful, though this only works if the camera is pointing somewhere that should normally be motion-free. For example, pointing the camera at a car parked on the street outside your home might seem a good idea, except that the alert would go off every time someone walked by. I should also observe that the supplied camera only works indoors, so it would need to be at a window.

There are questions of course about the effectiveness of CCTV security. Blurry pictures of hooded figures may not do you much good in terms of identifying the villains, though the alert service could be an advantage.

What are the social implications if large numbers of people choose to stick surveillance cameras all over their homes? I am not sure, but it is a question worth reflecting on.

That said, for someone on holiday who would like the ability to check that everything is in order at home, this seems to me a neat and smart solution.

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