Tag Archives: android

Honor 8 smartphone first look

I’m just back from Paris and the European launch of the Honor 8 smartphone.

Honor is wholly owned by Huawei though the relationship between the two businesses is a tad opaque. I’ve been told that Honor is run as a separate business focusing on a young internet-oriented market, though there is shared technology (it would be crazy not to). The Honor 8 represents a significant strategy shift in that it is a relatively high-end phone, whereas previous devices have been mid-range or lower.

One of the first things you notice about the Honor 8 though is its similarity to the Huawei P9, launched in Europe in April 2016, is obvious. That is no bad thing, since the P9 is excellent and the Honor 8 cheaper,  but the business strategy is a bit of a puzzle. Honor says its phone is targeting a different market, and it is true that the shiny glass body of the Honor 8, in a pleasing blue shade on my review unit, is jauntier than the grey metallic finish of the P9. The P9 is also a fraction slimmer. Yet the devices are far more alike than different, and I would happily pull out the Honor 8 at a business meeting. The Honor 8 also benefits from a few extra features, like the rear smart key.

The P9 has the benefit of Leica branding and shared technology for its camera. An Honor/Huawei PR person told me that this is a software-only distinction and that if you look at the hardware sensors the two phones are very similar. Should photographers therefore get the P9? Possibly, though for a casual snapper like myself I have not noticed a big advantage. See below for some comparative snaps.

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The Honor 8 (left) and the Huawei P9 (right).

To get a bit of context, the Honor 8 is being launched at €399 with 4GB RAM and 32 GB storage, or €449 with 4GB RAM and 64GB storage (inc VAT). That should equate to around £345 and £390 in the UK. The P9 was launched at £449 for 3GB RAM and 32GB storage, substantially more, though as ever real-world prices vary, and in practice a P9 today will likely cost only a little more than an Honor 8 if you shop around. The 8-core Kirin processor is the same, and the screen is the same resolution at 1920 x 1080. Both models also feature a dual-lens 12MP rear camera, 8MP front lens, and a rear fingerprint reader.

Out of the box

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The Honor 8 immediately impressed me as a nicely packaged device. You get headset, charger, USB C cable, SIM removal tool, quick start guide (not much use but does have a diagram showing exactly where to insert dual Nano-SIMs and microSD card) and a couple of stickers for good measure. I am not a fan of the headset which lacks any ear-bud gels so it not secure or comfortable for me, but tastes vary.

The glass body is attractive though shiny and easy to smear. Honor can supply a simple transparent case – more a tray than a case – which will offer a little protection, but most users will want something more.

Switch on and there is the usual Android palaver and confusion over permissions. Here I did notice something I dislike. I got a notification saying I should “complete device setup” and “Allow App Services to push messages”:

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Rather than tapping Allow, I tapped the notification and found an app installer and an invitation to “Choose the apps that come with your phone”. I tapped to see the EULA (End User License Agreement) and found it was a Sweetlabs app that “facilitates the recommendation, download and installation of third party apps.”

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This is horrible; it is deceptive in that it is presented as part of system setup and performs no useful function since you can easily install apps from the Google Play store; at least one of the apps offered by Sweetlabs (Twitter) was actually already installed. My opinion of which apps are “Essential” differs from that of Sweetlabs:

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I did not agree the Terms and Conditions. We have seen this kind of thing before, on Windows, and it is damaging to the user experience. History may repeat with Android.

Other than that, setup was straightforward.

Things to like

Fortunately, there is plenty to like. As on the P9, the fingerprint reader on the back is excellent; in fact, I like this feature so much that I sometimes absent mindedly tap the back of other phones and expect them to unlock for me. On the Honor 8 though, it is even better, since the fingerprint reader is also a “Smart key” which you can configure to open an app or take an action such as starting a voice recording or opening the camera. You can configure up to three shortcuts, for press, double press, press and hold.

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Another neat feature, also not on the P9, is the Smart Controller. This is a universal infra-red controller app and it seems rather good. I pointed it at a Samsung TV and after trying a few functions it declared a “best match” and seems to work fine.

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The camera

The camera is a key selling point for the Honor 8. One lens is RGB, the other monochrome, auto-focus is better with two lenses, and the ISP (Image Signal Processor) takes advantage by recording extra detail. There is also a great feature called Wide Aperture which lets you adjust the focus after the event.

When the camera app is open you can swipe from the left to select a mode. There are 16 modes:

Photo
Pro Photo
Beauty
Video
Pro Video
Beauty Video
Good Food
Panorama
HDR (High Dynamic Range)
Night Shot
Light Painting
Time-lapse
Slow-Mo
Watermark
Audio note
Document Scan

After just one day with the device I have not tried all the modes, but did take a look at Pro Photo which gives you control over the metering mode, ISO sensitivity, shutter speed, exposure compensation, focus mode (automatic or manual), and white balance.

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These same controls are on the P9 though with a slightly different UI and this causes me to wonder exactly what is the Leica contribution that is on the P9 but not the Honor 8. There are a few extra settings on the P9 if you swipe in from the right, including film mode, RAW mode and a Leica watermark option.

How is the camera in use? I took some snaps and was pleased with the results. I also tried taking a similar picture on the Honor 8 and the P9, and comparing the results:

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A Paris landmark (P9 left, Honor 8 right)

You can’t tell much from the full view, especially since I’ve resized the images for this post, so here is a detail from the above:

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Detail view (P9 left, Honor 8 right)

Much difference? Please do not draw conclusions from one snap but these support my impression that the Leica-enhanced P9 takes slightly sharper pictures than the Honor 8, but that a casual user would be happy with either.

Performance

The performance of the Honor 8 seems similar to that of the P9 which I reviewed here. The P9 features a Kirin 955 SoC versus the slightly older Kirin 950 in the Honor 8; the specs are similar. Both have 4 Cortex A72 cores, up to 2.5GHz in the Kirin 255 versus up to 2.3GHz in the Kirin 950. In each case, these are supplemented by 4 Cortex A53 cores at up to 1.8GHz and a quad-core Mali T880 MP4 GPU.

Geekbench 3, for example, reports 1703 single-core score and 6285 multi-core, one figure slightly worse, one slightly better than the P9. A run with PC mark came up with a Work Performance Score of 5799, below the P9 at 6387, with the difference mainly accounted for by a poor “Writing score”; other scores were slightly ahead of the P9, so something may be sub-optimal in the text handling and scrolling.

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Conclusion

I do like this phone; it looks good, feels responsive, and comes with some distinctive features, including the superb fingerprint reader, dual lens rear camera, smart key and smart controller. It does not seem to me to be a young person’s phone particularly, and I can see some people choosing it over a P9 not only for its lower price but also for a couple of extra features. Photographers may slightly prefer the P9, which also has a fractionally slimmer body and a more elegant, understated appearance. In the general phone market, the Honor 8 is competitively priced and well featured; I expect it to do well.

How to run Android Studio on Windows without disabling Hyper-V

Update: This post is out of date; you may still be able to get it to work but there are stability issues with the emulator. Microsoft has announced a better solution, if you are on the latest Windows 10 April 2018 Update or later, and you can now use the official Android emulator with Hyper-V. See also my more recent post here.

Original post:

If you run Windows and use the Hyper-V hypervisor, which is used by Visual Studio as well as being handy for testing stuff in virtual machines, then you will encounter an annoyance if you go on to install Android Studio, Google’s official IDE for Android.

The problem is that Google’s Android emulator uses Intel’s HAXM (Hardware Accelerated Execution Manager) which uses the same CPU virtualization extensions as Hyper-V. This means it is incompatible. It is not only that you can’t run Hyper-V and HAXM simultaneously; the PC has to be configured at boot to use one or the other.

The solution (if you do not want to disable Hyper-V) is to use Microsoft’s Android emulator, which is a free download here.

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In order to use this with Android Studio, you need to run the emulator first. Then, in Android Studio, go to Run – Edit Configurations and select Show Device Chooser Dialog under Deployment Target Options.

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Now run your project, and select the VS Emulator, ignoring the invitation to “Turn off Hyper-V”:

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Now you can debug your application in the Visual Studio Emulator – which is pretty good.

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Huawei P9 smartphone launched in London: first look review

I attended the launch of Huawei’s P9 and P9+ smartphone range in London. This was a global launch from a Chinese company which, like Xiaomi with its impressive presentation at Mobile World Congress, is intent on competing at the high end of the market.

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Huawei also has an important edge over Xiaomi in that its P9 range will be available shortly; from Huawei’s vMall online store in mid-April, or from various UK operators in “early May”.

The review sample came in a smart box with charger, USB type C cable, and white earbuds/headset:

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Insert micro-SIM, switch on, and the start-up experience I would describe as “reasonable for Android”, with a flurry of pop-ups asking for various permissions and agreements to terms and privacy policies; pretty ugly and hard to make sense of, but for this review I tapped OK to agree to most things in order to get what I guess is the normal experience.

I was also prompted to set up the fingerprint reader. This requires several readings of your finger and works well for me. Just touching my right finger on the back will unlock the phone. The phone storage is encrypted by default.

Design-wise, Huawei tried to persuade of the merits of “aerospace-class aluminium”, “diamond-cut edges”, “brushed hairlines” and the like; but while it is decent enough it does not strike me as exceptionally beautiful or nice to hold; of course tastes vary. It is thin and the edges are narrow to maximise the screen space. I am impressed that the designers squeezed a 3000 mAh battery into such a slim, light device.

The camera

Every smartphone needs some differentiation. Huawei has focused (ha!) on the camera. The P9 has a dual lens and the camera is designed in partnership with Leica, a well known and respected brand among professional photographers.

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The back of the P9 showing the dual-lens camera and fingerprint reader.

Both lenses are described as “Leica Summarit”, one 12MP camera is colour and the other monochrome. Dual lenses can help with focus, and in addition Huawei say that the monochrome lens adds detail to an image. You can also take monochrome pictures of course, and this was used to good effect in some of the samples by professional photographers we were shown. Of course you can easily convert any colour image from any camera to monochrome; perhaps the results from a specialist camera are superior.

Huawei also states that dual cameras mean more light and detail in low-light conditions, which absolutely makes sense.

A hybrid focus feature uses “laser, depth calculation, and contrast” and automatically selects the best result, says Huawei.

I have not been trying the P9 for long, but did take roughly the same picture with the P9 and with the Lumia 1020 (the latter famous for its 40MP camera). All settings were default. The P9 is top, the Lumia below, slightly cropped and then reduced in resolution (click for a double-size image):

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The P9 is more vivid and probably most people would prefer it. Here is a zoomed in detail, with the P9 at full resolution and the Lumia reduced to match:

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Of course I am not a professional photographer, nor was I using a tripod; but this is how I use a camera on a phone. My feeling is that the Lumia still comes out well for close detail and I am sorry that Microsoft has not come out with a true successor to the 1020, which will be three years old in July. The sad story of Windows Phone at Microsoft is not the subject of this post however.

There is much more to the P9 camera though. Here is a look at the settings:

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When the camera is open,  there are buttons across the top to control flash, wide aperture (for close-up shots), filter effects, and switching between rear and front (8MP) cameras.

The wide aperture option enables a remarkable feature: the ability to re-focus after taking the shot. Simply take the picture with the wide aperture option. It will be then show up in the Gallery with an aperture icon overlay. Tap the image to open it, then tap the aperture icon below the image.

Now you are in “wide aperture effects” mode. Tap any part of the image to focus on that spot, and enable a slider to vary the aperture after the event.

It really works:

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Now tap the out of focus tulip…

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This is magic and a lot of fun.

You can swipe up for Pro controls:

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In order to get full use of these options (and indeed the rest of the phone) you probably want to download the manual. The Pro controls are (left to right): metering mode (how exposure is set), ISO, Shutter speed, exposure compensation (brightness), focus mode and white balance.

Swipe left for a selection of special camera modes:

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There is also some fancy stuff like voice activated shooting (say “cheese” to take a photo). You can do burst shooting to take a rapid sequence of shots, with the best couple auto-selected. You can take rapid shots (capture the moment) by pressing volume down twice; the screen does not light up immediately but the shot is taken. I got a time from press to photo of about one second using this mode.

Video resolution is a maximum of 1080p, 60 fps, with stereo sound recording.

All things considered, this is an excellent camera, which is why Huawei handed out a book of professional photos taken with the device, which look superb.

Performance

The P9 feels fast and responsive. Huawei mentioned a file system optimization which increases performance but I have not got details of this.

I got a PC Mark score of 6387.

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This is ahead of the Samsung Galaxy S7, which scores 5926. Another mobile which is to hand, a budget Cubot with a quad code 1.3 GHz Mediatek, scores 3223.

On Geekbench 3 I got a score of 1725 single-core and 6087 multi-core. This compares to 2170 and 6360 for the Galaxy S7, so it falls behind slightly.

A bit more detail:

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The biggest difference versus the S7 is in the graphics. The P9’s Mali T880 is not quite the equal of the S7’s Exynos 8890 (on UK models).

Audio

A few notes on the audio side. There are a couple of annoyances, one being that the default music app is not much use to me (I use Spotify or Google Play on Android). The supplied headset is disappointing, with no rubber gel so the fit is rather insecure, and a rather bright sound with little bass. No matter, you can use your own headset; and plugging in a high-quality headset left me with no complaints.

The other good news is that the on-board speakers are remarkable. I can put the phone down, play some music, and really enjoy it. Bass is unusually good considering the lack of a proper speaker enclosure, and clarity is excellent.

Pricing

Let’s get some pricing context. The P9 is a flagship device, though from a company not perceived as a premium brand, and is priced accordingly. At £449 for the cheaper, smaller model it is about 20% less than a Samsung Galaxy S7, and about 27.5% less than an Apple iPhone 6S. It is good value considering the hardware, but not a casual purchase. Here is a table

  RAM Storage Size Screen CPU Battery Special features Price
Huawei P9 3GB 32GB 5.2″ 1920 x 1080 8-Core
2.5 GHz
3000 mAh Dual lens camera
Fingerprint
Reader
£449
Huawei P9+ 4GB 64GB 5.5″ 1920 x 1080 8-Core
2.5 GHz
3400 mAh Dual lens camera
Fingerprint
Reader
£549
Samsung
Galaxy S7
4GB 32GB 5.1″ 1440 x 2560 8-Core
2.3 GHz
3000 mAh IP68 Water resistance
Wireless charging
Gear VR
KNOX security
Fingerprint Reader
£569
Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge 4GB 32GB 5.5″ 1440 x 2560 8-Core
2.3 GHz
3600 mAh IP68 Water resistance
Wireless charging
Gear VR
KNOX security
Fingerprint Reader
£639
Apple iPhone 6S 2GB From 16GB 4.7″ 1334×750 2-Core 1.85 GHz
64-bit A9
1715 mAh Fingerprint sensor from
£539
Apple iPhone 6s Plus 2GB From 16GB 5.5″ 1920×1080 2-Core 1.85 GHz
64-bit A9
2750 mAh Fingerprint sensor from
£619
Apple iPhone SE 2GB From 16GB 4″ 1136×640 2-Core 1.85 GHz
64-bit A9
1624 mAh Fingerprint sensor from £359

The table above comes with a number of caveats. It doesn’t cover all the important specifications, it doesn’t tell you about the quality of materials or design, and some details, like the amount of storage, vary depending on the exact offer. The prices are for unlocked phones, whereas most people buy on contract. Apple’s prices tend to be higher than shown, because who wants just 16GB non-expandable storage? With 64GB the 6Se goes up to £439 and the 6S to £619.

First look conclusion

A couple of days with this phone leaves me convinced that Huawei has come up with a true high-end device at a very reasonable price. The camera is outstanding in terms of features though having been spoilt with the Lumia 1020 I would like a bit more than 12MP; I realise though that counting pixels is no way to judge a camera.

On the software side I note that the out of box experience on Android is not great, thanks to incessant permission pop-ups and confusing alternatives for things like music and email. Samsung’s apps are a bit better I think; but if you mostly live in Google apps or other favourite third-party apps, you will not care too much. Everything I have tried so far has worked.

The usefulness of the fingerprint reader is a pleasant surprise, as is the sound quality from the built-in speakers.

For sure the P9 is well worth considering if you are looking for an Android mobile with great performance and an interesting camera. It is excellent value for price/performance.

I think Samsung should worry a bit, not just about Huawei, but about other Chinese vendors with aggressive marketing plans, such as Xiaomi. Apple? On the train back I spoke to a passenger using an iPhone and asked whether she would switch to a mobile that was both better (in hardware terms) and cheaper. No, she said, because everything syncs between my phone, iPad and computer. Of course she could switch to Android and get similar synching with apps from other vendors; but I got the impression she is happy to stay in Apple’s world where stuff (more or less) just works. In this respect, it doesn’t help that each Android vendor wants to make their mark with distinctive apps; for many users that is just additional complication (I have declined to set up a Huawei ID, despite being prompted).

An impressive device though, and a clear statement of intent from Huawei.

Compile Android Java, iOS Objective C apps for Windows 10 with Visual Studio: a game changer?

Microsoft has announced the ability to compile Windows 10 apps written in Java or C++ for Android, or in Objective C for iOS, at its Build developer conference here in San Francisco.

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Objective C code in Visual Studio

The Android compatibility had been widely rumoured, but the Objective C support not so much.

This is big news, but oddly the Build attendees were more excited by the HoloLens section of the keynote (3D virtual reality) than by the iOS/Android compatibility. That is partly because this is the wrong crown; these are the Windows faithful who would rather code in C#.

Another factor is that those who want Microsoft’s platform to succeed will have mixed feelings. Is the company now removing any incentive to code dedicated Windows apps that will make the most of the platform?

Details of the new capabilities are scant though we will no doubt get more details as the event progresses. A few observations though.

Microsoft is trying to fix the “app gap”, the fact that both Windows Store and Windows Phone Store (which are merging) have a poor selection of apps compared to iOS or Android. Worse, many simply ignore the platforms as too small to bother with. Lack of apps make the platforms less attractive so the situation does not improve.

The goal then is to make it easier for developers to port their code, and also perhaps to raise the quality of Windows mobile apps by enabling code sharing with the more important platforms.

There are apparently ways to add Windows-specific features if you want your ported app to work properly with the platform.

Will it work? The Amazon Fire and the Blackberry 10 precedents are not encouraging. Both platforms make it easy to port Android apps (Amazon Fire is actually a version of Android), yet the apps available in the respective app stores are still far short of what you can get for Google Android.

The reasons are various, but I would guess part of the problem is that ease of porting code does not make an unimportant platform important. Another factor is that supporting an additional platform never comes for free; there is admin and support to consider.

The strategy could help though, if Microsoft through other means makes the platform an attractive target. The primary way to do this of course is to have lots of users. VP Terry Myerson told us that Microsoft is aiming for 1 billion devices running Windows 10 within 2-3 years. If it gets there, the platform will form a strong app market and that in turn will attract developers, some of whom will be glad to be able to port their existing code.

The announcement though is not transformative on its own. Microsoft still has to drive lots of Windows 10 upgrades and sell more phones.

Delphi and RAD Studio 2015 roadmap: no Universal Apps?

Embarcadero has posted a roadmap for RAD Studio 2015, its suite of tools for building apps for Windows, Mac, iOS and Android.

Note that the company says the (sketchy) plans outlined are “not a promise, or a contract”.

I will be interested to see if the company intends to support the Windows 10 Universal App Platform (UAP), which Microsoft is pushing as the future of Windows client app development. UAP apps run on the Windows Runtime, a sandboxed environment introduced in Windows 8. In Windows 10, UAP apps are integrated with the Windows desktop, and run on Windows Phone and Xbox as well as on PCs and tablets.

When Window 8 came out, Embarcadero came up with a project type called “Metropolis”, which simulated the Windows 8 Metro environment but with a Win32 executable. It was neither one thing nor the other, and mostly ignored as far as I can tell. That said, lack of support for Windows 8 Store apps proved to be no big deal, because of the low take-up for the platform in general. At this stage, nobody knows whether the UAP may be similarly unsuccessful, though it seems to me that it has a better chance thanks to its broader scope and changes that have been made.

The roadmap promises “Integration with new Windows 10 platform technologies” but does not promise support for the Windows Runtime or UAP, so my assumption for the moment is that Embarcadero is steering clear for the time being. There may also be technical challenges.

Not much new is promised for the venerable VCL (Windows-only apps), and only a little more for the cross-platform FireMonkey: new mobile components including Maps, a WebBrowser component for desktop apps, and more iOS platform (real native) controls.

A new iOS 64-bit compiler is promised, as well as moving the Win32 compiler to an LLVM-based toolchain, as is already the case for 64-bit Windows.

There is an Internet of Things slide which promises “mobile proximity integration” and components for connecting to different devices. Exactly what is new compared to the IoT support described here for XE7 is not clear to me.

Under consideration, Embarcadero says, is Linux server-side support for its middle-tier technologies like DataSnap, support for Intel Android, and a 64-bit toolchain for Mac OS X.

Since it is on SlideShare, I can embed the whole thing here:

This is some help I guess; though I recall much past angst expressed on the Embarcadero forums about these roadmaps, or the lack/lateness of them. The problem, I guess, is that roadmaps are of little benefit to the tools vendors, since they have potential to fuel discontent, set expectations that may later prove unrealistic, and give away plans to competitors.

This may explain why this one has so little content. Embarcadero could work a bit harder on the presentation as well; this really does not have the look of being the exciting next generation of a powerful cross-platform toolkit.

Mobile World Congress 2015 round-up: MediaTek Helio, Samsung Galaxy S6, Boyd smell sensor, Jolla Sailfish 2.0, Alcatel OneTouch devices, ZTE eye scanning, and Ford’s electric bike

Finding time to write everything up is a struggle, so rather than risk not doing so at all, here is a quick-fire reflection on the event.

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Microsoft’s Windows 10 was part of it of course; I’ve covered this in a separate post.

I attended MediaTek’s press event. This Taiwan SoC company announced the Helio X10 64-bit 8-core chip and had some neat imaging demos. Helio is its new brand name. I was impressed with the company’s presentation; it seems to be moving quickly and delivering high-performance chips.

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Alcatel OneTouch showed me its latest range. The IDOL 3 smartphone includes a music mixing app which is good fun.

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There is also a watch of course:

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Despite using Android for its smartphones, Alcatel OneTouch says Android Wear is too heavyweight for its watches.

The Alcatel OneTouch range looks good value but availability in the UK is patchy. I was told in Barcelona that the company will address this with direct sales through its own ecommerce site, though currently this only sells accessories, and trying to get more retail presence as opposed to relying on carrier deals.

I attended Samsung’s launch of the Galaxy S6. Samsung is a special case at MWC. It has the largest exhibits and the biggest press launch (many partners attend too). It is not just about mobile devices but has a significant enterprise pitch with its Knox security piece.

So to the launch, which took place in the huge Centre de Convencions Internacional, unfortunately the other side of Barcelona from most of the other events.

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The S5 was launched at the same venue last year, and while it was not exactly a flop, sales disappointed. Will the S6 fare better?

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It’s a lovely phone, though there are a few things missing compared to the S5: no microSD slot, battery not replaceable, not water resistance. However the S6 is more powerful with its 8-core processor and 1440×2560 screen, vs quad-core and 1920×1080 in the S5. Samsung has also gone for a metal case with tough Gorilla Glass front and back, versus the plastic and glass construction of the S5, and most observers feel this gives a more premium feel to the newer smartphone.

I suspect that these details are unimportant relative to other factors. Samsung wants to compete with the iPhone, but it is hardly possible to do so, given the lock which the Apple brand and ecosystem holds on its customers. Samsung’s problem is that the cost of an excellent smartphone has come down and the perceived added value of a device at over £500 or $650 versus one for half the price is less than it was a couple of years ago. Although these prices get hidden to some extent in carrier deals, they still have an impact.

Of particular note at MWC were the signs that Samsung is falling out with Google. Evidence includes the fact that Samsung Knox, which Google and Samsung announced last year would be rolled into Android, is not in fact part of Android at Work, to the puzzlement of Samsung folk I talked to on the stand. More evidence is that Samsung is bundling Microsoft’s Office 365 with Knox, not what Google wants to see when it is promoting Google Apps.

Google owns Android and intends it to pull users towards its own services; the tension between the company and its largest OEM partner will be interesting to watch.

At MWC I also met with Imagination, which I’ve covered here.

Jolla showed its crowd-sourced tablet running Sailfish OS 2.0, which is based on the abandoned Nokia/Intel project called MeeGo. Most of its 128 employees are ex-Nokia.

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Jolla’s purpose is not so much to sell a tablet and phone, as to kick-start Sailfish which the company hopes will become a “leading digital content and m-commerce platform”. It is targeting government officials, businesses and “privacy-aware consumers”  with what it calls a “security strengthened mobile solution”. Its business model is not based on data collection, says the Jolla presentation, taking a swipe at Google, and it is both independent and European. Sailfish can run many Android apps thanks to Myriad’s Alien Dalvik runtime.

The tablet looks great and the project has merit, but what chance of success? The evidence, as far as I can tell, is that most users do not much object to their data being collected; or put another way, if they do care, it does not much affect their buying or app-using decisions. That means Sailfish will have a hard task winning customers.

China based ZTE is differentiating its smartphones with eye-scanning technology. The Grand S3 smartphone lets you unlock the device with Eyeprint ID, based on a biometric solution from EyeVerify.

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Senior Director Waiman Lam showed me the device. “It uses the retina characteristic of your eyes for authentication,” he said. “We believe eye-scanning technology is one of the most secure biometric ways. There are ways to get around fingerprint. It’s very very secure.”

Talking of sensors, I must also mention San Francisco based Boyd Sense, a startup, which has a smell sensor. I met with CEO Bruno Thuillier. “The idea we have is to bring gas technology to the mobile phone,” he said. Boyd Sense is using technology developed by partner Alpha MOS.

The image below shows a demo in which a prototype sensor is placed into a jar smelling of orange, which is detected and shown on the connected smartphone.

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What is the use of a smell sensor? What we think of as smell is actually the ability to detect tiny quantities of chemicals, so a smell sensor is a gas analyser. “You can measure your environment,” says Thuillier. “Think about air quality. You can measure food safety. You can measure beverage safety. You can also measure your breath and some types of medical condition. There are a lot of applications.”

Not all of these ideas will be implemented immediately. Measuring gas accurately is difficult, and vulnerable to the general environment. “The result depends on humidity, temperature, speed of diffusion, and many other things,” Thuillier told me.

Of course the first thing that comes to mind is testing your breath the morning after a heavy night out, to see if you are safe to drive. “This is not complicated, it is one gas which is ethanol,” says Thuillier. “This I can do easily”.

Analysing multiple gasses is more complex, but necessary for advanced features like detecting medical conditions. Thuillier says more work needs to be done to make this work in a cheap mobile device, rather than the equipment available in a laboratory.

I had always assumed that sampling blood is the best way to get insight into what is happening in your body, but apparently some believe breathe is as good or better, as well as being easier to get at.

For this to succeed, Boyd Sense needs to get the cost of the sensor low enough to appeal to smartphone vendors, and small enough not to spoil the design, as well as working on the analysis software.

It is an interesting idea though, and more innovative than most of what I saw on the MWC floor. Thuillier is hoping to bring something to the consumer market next year.

Finally, one of my favourite items at MWC this year was Ford’s electric bikes.

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Ford showed two powered bicycles at the show, both prototypes and the outcome of an internal competition. The idea, I was told, is that bikes are ideal for the last part of a journey, especially in today’s urban environments where parking is difficult. You can put your destination into an app, get directions to the car park nearest your destination, and then dock your phone to the bike for the handlebar by handlebar directions.

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I also saw a prototype delivery van with three bikes in the back. Aimed at delivery companies, this would let the driver park at a convenient spot for the next three deliveries, and have bikers zip off to drop the parcels.

Google’s official Android Studio is at version 1.0

Google has released version 1.0 of Android Studio.

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This Java/Android IDE has been in preview/beta since Google IO in May. It is based on the excellent JetBrains IntelliJ IDEA.

You can get Android Studio here. It is now the official Android IDE and developers using Eclipse are encouraged to migrate – like it or not.

One of the key features is a new build system based on Gradle. Another notable features is a visual layout designer; you can toggle between visual and text modes.

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Presumably one reason for Google developing its own Android IDE is to integrate more tightly with its cloud services. There is a Google Cloud Module on offer in the IDE.

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Android development has its hassles. I seem to spend far too much time in the Android SDK Manager downloading new versions of the SDK, which is frequently updated.

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Another annoyance is that the Intel Emulator Accelerator (HAXM) is incompatible with Hyper-V, the official Windows hypervisor. You either have to uninstall Hyper-V,  or put up with a slow emulator. I would prefer it if Google/Intel/JetBrains used the standard Windows component.

Xamarin Evolve: developers enjoy the buzz around cross-platform coding with C#

“It’s like a Microsoft developer event back when they were good,” one exhibitor here at Xamarin Evolve in Atlanta told me, and I do see what he means. There is plenty of buzz, since Xamarin is just three years old as a company and growing fast; there is the sense of an emerging technology, and that developers are actually enjoying their exploration of what they can do on today’s mobile devices.

Microsoft is an engineering-led company and was more so in its early days. The same is true of Xamarin. It also also still small enough that everyone is approachable, including co-founders Miguel de Icaza and Nat Friedman. The session on what’s new in Xamarin.Mac and Xamarin.iOS was presented by de Icaza, and it is obvious that he is still hands-on with the technology and knows it inside out. Developers warm to this because they feel that the company will be responsive to their needs.

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Approachability is important, because this is a company that is delivering code at breakneck speed and bugs or known issues are not uncommon. A typical conversation with an attendee here goes like this:

“How do you find the tools?” “Oh, we like them, they are working well for us. Well, we did find some bugs, but we talked to Xamarin about them and they were fixed quickly.”

Xamarin’s tools let you write C# code and compile it for iOS, Android and Mac. If you are building for Windows Phone or Windows, you will probably use Microsoft’s tools and share non-visual C# code, though the recently introduced Xamarin Forms, a cross-platform XML language for defining a user interface, builds for Windows Phone as well as iOS and Android.

The relationship with Microsoft runs deep. The main appeal of the tools is to Microsoft platform developers who either want to use their existing C# (or now F#) skills to respond to the inevitable demand for iOS and Android clients, or to port existing C# code, or to make use of existing C# libraries to integrate with Windows applications on the server.

That said, Xamarin is beginning to appeal to developers from outside the Microsoft ecosystem and I was told that there is now demand for Xamarin to run introductory C# classes. Key to its appeal is that you get deep native integration on each platform. The word “native” is abused by cross-platform tool vendors, all of whom claim to have it. In Xamarin’s case what it means is that the user interface is rendered using native controls on each platform. There are also extensive language bindings so that, for example, you can call the iOS API seamlessly from C# code. Of course this code is not cross-platform, so developers need to work out how to structure their solutions to isolate the platform-specific code so that the app builds correctly for each target. The developers of Wordament, a casual game which started out as a Windows Phone app, gave a nice session on this here at Evolve.

Wordament has an interesting history. It started out using Silverlight for Windows Phone and Google App Engine on the server. Following outages with Google App Engine, the server parts were moved to Azure. Then for Windows 8 the team ported the app to HTML and JavaScript. Then they did a port to Objective C for iOS and Java for Android. Then they found that managing all these codebases made it near-impossible to add features. Wordament is a network game where you compete simultaneously with players on all platforms, so all versions need to keep tightly in step. So they ported to Xamarin and now it is C# on all platforms.. 

I digress. The attendees here are mostly from a Microsoft platform background, and they like the fact that Xamarin works with Visual Studio. This also means that there are plenty of Microsoft partner companies here, such as the component vendors DevExpress, Syncfusion, Infragistics and ComponentOne. It is curious: according to one of the component companies I spoke to, Microsoft platform developers get the value of this approach where others do not. They have had only limited success with products for native iOS or Android development, but now that Xamarin Forms has come along, interest is high.

Another Microsoft connection is Charles Petzold – yes, the guy who wrote Programming Windows – who is here presenting on Xamarin Forms and signing preview copies of his book on the subject. Petzold now works for Xamarin; I interviewed him here and hope to post this soon. Microsoft itself is here as well; it is the biggest sponsor and promoting Microsoft Azure along with Visual Studio.

Xamarin is not Microsoft though, and that is also important. IBM is also a big sponsor, and announced a partnership with Xamarin, offering libraries and IDE add-ins to integrate with its Worklight mobile-oriented middleware. Amazon is here, promoting both its app platform and its cloud services. Google is a sponsor though not all that visible here; Peter Friese from the company gave a session on using Google Play Services, and Jon Skeet also from Google presented a session, but it was pure C# and not Google-specific. Salesforce is a sponsor because it wants developers to hook into its cloud services no matter what tool they use; so too is Dropbox.

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Most of the Xamarin folk use Macs, and either use Xamarin Studio (a customised version of the open source MonoDevelop IDE), or Visual Studio running in a virtual machine (given that the team mostly use Macs, this seems to me the preferred platform for Xamarin development, though Visual Studio is a more advanced IDE so you will probably end up dipping in and out of Windows/Mac however you approach it).

Xamarin announced several new products here at Evolve; I gave a quick summary in a Register post. To be specific:

  • A new fast Android emulator based on Virtual Box
  • Xamarin Sketches for trying out code with immediate analysis and execution
  • Xamarin Profiler
  • Xamarin Insights: analytics and troubleshooting for deployed apps

Of these, Sketches is the most interesting. You write snippets of code and the tool not only executes it but does magic like generating a graph from sequences of data. You can use it for UI code too, trying out different fonts, colours and shapes until you get something you like. It is great fun and would be good for teaching as well; maybe Xamarin could do a version for education at a modest price (or free)?

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I am looking forward to trying out Sketches though I have heard grumbles about the preview being hard to get working so it may have to wait until next week.

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LibreOffice is four years old, plans Android version

Four years ago, on 28th September 2010, the open source LibreOffice productivity suite was created by forking OpenOffice. This Microsoft Office alternative offers a word processor, spreadsheet, presentation graphics, vector drawing package, and database manager. Its origins are in a German suite called Star Office, which was acquired by Sun Microsystems in 1999. In an effort to disrupt Microsoft, Sun made Star Office free and open source, creating OpenOffice.org. However Sun itself was acquired by Oracle Corporation in 2010, and LibreOffice was created by a breakaway group of OpenOffice contributors who were wary of what might happen to the project under Oracle’s stewardship.

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They probably need not have worried, since Oracle donated OpenOffice to the Apache foundation in 2011. It is still performing its intended function as a Microsoft disruptor; see for example this report of the Italian city of Udine moving from Microsoft Windows and Office to Linux and OpenOffice.

A key motivation is that it is easier to keep free software up to date, and organisations like having all their users on the same version:

"Some of our PCs are stuck with pretty old software like Office 2000, which is no longer supported, as we haven’t had the resources to upgrade," Gabriele Giacomini, the innovation and economic development councillor for the municipality of Udine, told ZDNet.

"By switching to open source, we will have the chance to allow our employees to work with the latest version of the suite”

Microsoft, of course, wants to address this by persuading users to subscribe to Office rather than buying it outright; though this does not solve the problem of out of date Windows versions (but watch this space).

But what about LibreOffice? What is the point of having two major open source productivity suites based on essentially the same products?

Good question; but one possible differentiator is that LibreOffice is working on an Android port. The Document Foundation, which runs the LibreOffice project, is inviting tenders for implementation of the suite on Android, complete with a basic interface for integrating with the user’s “preferred cloud storage”.

Another point of interest is that the Foundation is asking for commercial tenders rather than hiring its own coders to work with the open source community.

That said, there is already an Android port of OpenOffice, called AndrOpen Office, though this is a fork and not an official Apache OpenOffice project.

Are these multiple forks healthy proliferation, or open source confusion? That depends on your point of view, though it does show the ability of the open source community to respond to obvious needs.

It seems to me though that the suite would be more attractive to businesses if LibreOffice and OpenOffice could merge, and develop an official Android version of the suite.

My guess is that productivity software on tablets (and phablets) will be a key battleground as users do an increasing proportion of their work on mobile devices rather than PCs or laptops. Microsoft already has an iOS version of Office, and one for Android in preparation. There is also a version of Office for the Windows 8 “Metro” personality in preparation.

Open source advocate Glyn Moody has posted about the LibreOffice project here.

Android apps on Chrome: how it works and what it may become

Google announced at its I/O conference in June 2014 that Android apps are coming to its Chrome OS. Earlier this month product managers Ken Mixter and Josh Woodward announced that the first four Android apps are available in the Chromebook app store: Duolingo, Evernote, Sight Words and Vine.

I delayed posting about this until I found the time to investigate a little into how it works. I fired up an Acer C720 and installed Evernote from the Chrome web store (in addition to Evernote Web which was already installed).

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When you install your first Android app, Chrome installs the App Runtime for Chrome (Beta) (ARC) automatically.

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Incidentally, I found Evernote slightly odd on Chromebook since it is runs in a window although the app is designed to run full screen, as it would on a phone or tablet. This caught me out when I went to settings, which looks like a dialog, and closed it with the x at the top right of the window. Of course that closes the app entirely. If you want to navigate the app, you have to click the back arrow at top left of the window instead.

But what is the App Runtime for Chrome? This seems to be an implementation of the Android runtime for NaCl (Native Client), which lets you run compiled C and C++ code in the browser. If you browse the parts of ARC which are open source, you can see how it implements the Android Open Source Project (AOSP) for arch-nacl: a virtual processor running as a browser extension.

Not all of ARC is open source. The docs say:

Getting Started with ARC Open Source on Linux

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A small set of shared objects can be built which are part of ARC currently.

A fully running system cannot currently be built.

It is early days, with just four apps available, ARC in beta, and developers asked to contact Google if they are interested in having their Android apps run on Chrome OS. However, an independent developer has already ported ARC to desktop Chrome:

ARChon runtime lets you run unlimited number of Android APKs created with chromeos-apk on Chrome OS and across any desktop platform that supports Chrome.

The desktop version is unstable, and apps that need Google Play services run into problems. Still, think of it as a proof of concept.

In particular, note that this is Android Runtime for Chrome, not Android Runtime for Chrome OS. Google is targeting the browser, not the operating system. This means that ARC can, if Google chooses, become an Android runtime for every operating system where Chrome runs – with the exception, I imagine, of Chrome for iOS, which is really a wrapper for Apple’s web browser engine and cannot support NaCl, and Chrome for Android which does not need it.

Imagine that Google gets ARC running well on Windows and Mac. What are the implications?

The answer is that Android will become a cross-platform runtime, alongside others such as Flash (the engine in Adobe AIR) and Java. There has to be some performance penalty for apps written in Java for Android running in an Android VM in the browser; but NaCl runs native code and I would expect performance to be good enough.

This would make Android an even more attractive target for developers, since apps will run on desktop computers as well as on Android itself.

Might this get to the point where developers drop dedicated Windows or Mac versions of their apps, arguing that users can just run the Android version? An ARC app will be compromised not only in performance, but also in the way it integrates with the OS, so you would not expect this to happen with major apps. However, it could happen with some apps, since it greatly simplifies development.