A Microsoft Future

Microsoft Windows 8Last week’s “Microsoft Fantasy” here on GNC suggested that Microsoft was in danger of fading into irrelevance; that it should retreat to servers and gaming; that it should re-orient its mobile strategy around Android. I suggest that Microsoft is now very well positioned to offer far more than its competitors. And to negate any ad hominem attacks, I’m no Microsoft fanboy – I’ve a Linux desktop, Android tablet, Nexus smartphone and a Chromebook – but I can see a better strategy in Microsoft than defeat and retreat.

There are three players in the OS space – Microsoft with Windows, Google with Android and Apple with iOS. Each of these pairings has strengths and weaknesses. Microsoft is strong in servers, PCs and gaming. Google is good in mobile. Apple’s strength lies in PCs, entertainment and mobile. Obviously there are other players, such as Sony who are strong in gaming, but they can be discounted without OS aspirations.

Microsoft is a large organisation. It can be slow to respond and doesn’t always identify and embrace future technologies as fast as it should. The internet and Internet Explorer is a pretty good example. Other times, it moves into new markets, starting slowly and building up: look at the Xbox – it’s the market-leader. Certainly Microsoft has never been strong in the smartphone market being overshadowed previously by Blackberry and Palm, but it has a track record of trying tablet-type devices. Anyone remember Windows XP Tablet Edition? No, you probably don’t, but it existed.

But let’s think about how Microsoft’s competitors can realistically move in on their turf. For all the rise of BYOD, most large organisations use Windows on the desktop, Exchange for email, Ms Server on the tin. Google is trying hard to offer software as service in the cloud but there’s still lots of nervousness about the cloud and the leaks about US snooping aren’t going to help. Apple isn’t big in business by any stretch of the imagination and this is unlikely change. Both Apple and Google are into entertainment but neither have expressed much interest in hardcore gaming. It’s certainly not impossible for a hot Android or iOS console to come out but for now I think we can discount that.

Accepting then that Microsoft is reasonably unassailable (without being complacent) in gaming or business, let’s look at mobile and tablets in particular. Both Apple’s iPad and Android-based tablets are great devices, but even the most ardent fan will admit that tablets are generally best for consumption rather than production – it’s watching videos, surfing the web, listening to music. For creation, most people return to the keyboard and mouse on a desktop or laptop. Looking at business, while opportunities exist for tablets in business without a doubt, the bread and butter is still going to orient around Word and Excel.

The trend to mobile has been going on for years: from the desktop to the laptop to the tablet. But it’s extension to new devices, not extinction of the old. When laptops came out, did all the desktops go away? No. And it will be no different with tablets. We can see the rebalancing in the slow down of PC sales but this is entirely to be expected.

And this is Microsoft’s killer advantage – a potentially seamless suite of devices and form-factors from servers, through desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones. Business in particular want to use what they have already invested in – ActiveDirectory, Group Policies, Sharepoint. Microsoft and its partners are responding to this with devices that offer both a touch interface via the Modern UI and a traditional desktop for legacy applications where a keyboard and mouse is needed. The bottom line is that there’s no longer any need to shoehorn in Apple or Android onto the infrastructure at extra cost.

But what about the consumers? They’re not businesses, they’ve no investment, they’re not going to be swayed by ActiveDirectory concerns. They want apps! Absolutely, but let’s be honest about apps – most key apps and popular games are available across all platforms, and the relative low cost of apps means that it is easier to jump ship to a different OS.  Windows 8 isn’t perfect, but I would lay good money that if a 7″ Windows-based tablet was available for Nexus 7 money, they’d sell shed-loads. A similar argument follows for smartphones and Windows Phone has actually been doing quite well recently with solid gains according a recent IDC survey.

Microsoft is ahead of the game in recognising that the future is not a tablet future, but a touch future, and building touch into the core of Windows is a winner. For me, all Microsoft needs to do it get the prices down, tweak the usability of Windows 8 and continue with the “Windows Everywhere” advertising. It’s a Microsoft future.

Pogoplug Mobile Review

Pogoplug LogoThe cloud is definitely where it’s at right now, but what if you don’t like the idea the idea of Google, Dropbox et al looking after your data? Then you might be interested in a Pogoplug, which allows you to create your own cloud storage that’s only limited by the size of the hard disk. A Pogoplug is a hardware gadget that connects USB storage devices to your local LAN and then makes the space available across the Internet, effectively creating a personal cloud. The data is stored in your control and if more storage is needed, plug-in a bigger hard drive.

On review here is the Pogoplug Mobile, the 3rd generation of Pogoplug device from Cloud Engines. It offers a single USB port plus an SD card slot along with the network port and power socket. Newer Pogoplugs come with USB3 ports, but as the maximum speed of the Pogoplug cloud is always going to be the speed of the Internet connection, the faster transfer speeds of USB3 are unlikely to be a significant benefit. For testing, I used a 64 GB memory stick, rather than a hard drive, which means that the unit will run silently with minimal power consumption.

Pogoplug Packaging

The Pogoplug website has downloads for Windows, Macs and Linux, and the relevant app stores have versions for Android, iOS, Blackberry and legendary WebOS. I was able to try the Windows, Linux, Android and WebOS versions. The Windows version connects to the Pogoplug and presents it as a drive letter, allowing most Windows applications to use the Pogoplug transparently. The Pogoplug software has additional backup functionality as well, which may be useful for some people. The Linux version is command line only but anyone familiar with Linux will have no trouble getting the Pogoplug mounted into the filesystem.

The Android app is simple and straightforward with a couple of nice tricks up its sleeve. Broadly you can browse files in a directory fashion or you can view music, photos and movies in a tag or meta-data based fashion, As expected, there are viewers and players for the media, though movies get handed over to the default app rather than playing within the Pogoplug app. The music player is basic and has one really irritating flaw; it doesn’t seem to be able to pick up the track number from the mp3 files and consequently orders tracks alphabetically when playing albums. This really needs to be fixed.

Back viewPerformance-wise, the Pogoplug is always going to be limited by the upload (rather than download) speed of the broadband connection when outside of the home. This usually meant a little bit of buffering before playing music but once the playback got underway, there was rarely any stuttering. There were occasional times when folders refused to refresh but my suspicion is that any problems were down to the local data connection on my phone rather than a problem with the Pogoplug. YMMV. Inside my home, the performance was excellent.

In common with other social and cloud apps, the Pogoplug app has automatic uploading of pictures and video from the devices camera. It’s also possible to set the folder where the uploaded images are to go. Frankly, this is brilliant as my wife is hopeless at remembering to copy photos off her smartphone so by setting up the Pogoplug app on her phone, any photos she takes get automatically transferred. On occasion, a photo would sometimes fail to completely upload; again I suspect the loss of 3G connectivity than any fundamental problem, but the error checking could be improved. It’s also possible to upload any image from within the photo Gallery app.

As with most cloud solutions, you can also share with friends and family, using either the app or the web interface. It’s straightforward – select the folder you want to share, select who you want to share with and an email is sent to them with the relevant link. It’s an easy way to share photos of Junior with grandma and grandpa.

Any downsides? Only two that i can see….first, there’s no direct integration with any other apps that I could find. Quickoffice and other office apps typically allow access straight into Google Drive or Dropbox but none seemed to work with a Pogoplug. Effectively I had to download a Word doc to the phone, do my edits in QuickOffice and then upload the doc back to the Pogoplug. Not slick.

The second is that when I was at home and on the same subnet as the Pogoplug, Internet access to Pogoplug’s servers was still needed, presumably to check authorisation privileges. Normally, it’s not going to be an issue, but it would be handy to have a way to bypass this when working locally and the connection to the Internet goes down.

Overall, the Pogoplug is a handy device that gives you control over your data rather than entrusting it to a megacorp. A few glitches spoil what is otherwise a neat little solution that potentially gives as much data storage space as you need, without paying per GB per annum. For the low cost of the Pogoplug unit (about $50 / £35), it’s a bargain.

Disclaimer – this was a personally purchased device.

Samsung Google Galaxy Nexus Smartphone Review

Samsung Galaxy NexusThe smartphone market is full of great phones running Android, iOS or Windows Phone. Regrettably none of them is running WebOS, so it was with much sadness that I decided to retire my HP Pre 3 and move on to a more current device. I tend to buy off-contract so as not to get locked in, but I don’t usually buy a top-of-the-range, just-released phone as they’re simply too expensive. With a budget of around £300, there’s plenty of choice depending on the age and features. Looking at Android phones, my main thoughts were around the Motorola Razr or one of the Xperias. But then I spotted that the Samsung Google Galaxy Nexus was beginning to be discounted with Expansys offering it for £299 and with its feature set, it’s an absolute bargain.

First impressions count and on unboxing, I couldn’t believe how big the screen was. It’s huge in comparison to the Pre 3, which in turn I thought was big compared to the Palm Pre. It’s also gloriously colourful and detailed and combined with the screen size, there’s definitely a wow-factor when I show it to someone who hasn’t seen either this or a Samsung SIII before. After a couple of days, I got used to the size and started enjoying the extra screen real estate available. It’s definitely worth it.

Secondly, although the Galaxy Nexus isn’t a new phone, it’ll update to the newest version of Android, v4.1 aka Jelly Bean. And it is sweet. The phone is very responsive, animations are smooth and everything that Google says about Project Butter is true. Combined with the lush screen, it’s a thing of beauty and a joy to use. In the few days, I’ve been using the phone, I’ve never had a slowdown, never had a crash and never had to reboot the phone. Being a Google Nexus devices, it’s pure Android without any OEM features laid on top, which in my book, is definitely a plus and I can expect regular updates from Google without having to wait for the manufacturers to revise

I haven’t found that many functional differences between Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean with one exception…Google Now. This runs all the time in the background, putting the smarts into the smartphone. Simply, it tries to help you run your life a little more smoothly using a set of cards which are like mini-apps. Here’s an example: if I have an upcoming appointment in my calendar and I’ve included the location of the appointment, Google Now will show me the place on a small map and it will tell me how long it will take to drive there. It will also alert me when it’s time to go. There are other cards available for public transport, flights, sports scores and I’m sure more will appear over time.

Other features of note…call quality is very good and a step up from the Pre 3. I can hear people clearly and by all accounts the person on the other end can hear me well too. The camera seems fine to me, taking photos up to 5MP, tracks faces, and there is a panorama mode for taking wide shots. I’m hoping that the lens doesn’t get too easily scratched as the camera seems to be located exactly where the phone rests on a flat surface. Jelly Bean includes the Face Unlock feature which works surprisingly well but I’m not sufficiently narcissistic to want to use. You may love yourself more.

On the downside…the battery life isn’t great, though it’s on a par with the Pre 3. To be fair, it’s a new phone and I tend to be doing more on the Nexus while I’m bedding it in, so I think it might end up being better than the Pre 3 once I get back to normal. I have ordered a larger battery anyway but it’s not arrived in the post yet. Another criticism is with the back cover that comes off to access the removable battery and the SIM card: it’s a bit flimsy but it is textured in the Nexus-style to make it easier to grip. I notice that there are replacement metal covers available but some come with warnings that the cover may interfere with GPS reception so I’ve not bothered. Finally, there seems to be only one speaker which is located in the bump on the lower back of the Nexus. Consequently, if the phone is put down on any kind of soft surface, the speaker easily gets blocked and can become quite quiet.

I’ll always have a soft spot for Palm, WebOS and what might have been. I bought a Palm III when I was a much younger man and have stuck with them ever since but when you can get as good a phone as the Galaxy Nexus, there’s no looking back. The only features I miss from the Pre is the wireless charging and the excellent multitasking app-card metaphor. Can’t have everything.

Overall, the Galaxy Nexus is an absolutely cracking phone and at £300 is a steal. Find one, try one, buy one.

Disclosure – this Galaxy Nexus was a personal purchase and not a review unit.

Fulton Innovation’s Wireless Charging

Fulton Innovation logoThe great thing about CES is that every now and then an unknown shows off something cool. I’d never heard of Fulton Innovation but they have smart products based around wireless power transmission. Todd learns more about eCoupled from Dave Baarman.

Fulton Innovation have developed an inductive coupling solution that scales from simply making a magazine cover light up as you walk past to being able to charge a whole bag of devices without taking them out of the bag. Electric cars could be recharged by parking in the right spot and not by plugging them in.

Not all of these products are ready for market just yet, but inductive charging efficiencies are on a par with plug-in chargers though economies of scale are needed to bring the prices down to a point where it’s built-in as standard. Palm’s Pre range of smartphones used inductive charging with the Touchstone and the Motorola Droid 4 has inductive charging as an option. As a Pre 3 owner, it’s brilliant not having to fiddle with cables and I hope more devices come to the market with inductive charging in 2012.

Interview by Todd Cochrane of Geek News Central for the TechPodcast Network, and Dave Lee from Waves of Tech.

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Grooveshark Goes HTML5

Grooveshark LogoIn order to get round all those pesky app store rules, the musos at Grooveshark have produced a basic little HTML5 player that’s available via Grooveshark’s website. If you’re not familiar with Grooveshark, it’s “the world’s largest on-demand and music discovery service. With over 15 million songs, Grooveshark is an ecosystem that brings together music fans, bands, music labels, and brands.”

A posting on their blog yesterday said:

In an effort to span over this confounded series of tubes and reach as many mobile music listeners as we can, we’ve done the unthinkable.

iOS? We got there.
Android 2.3+?   We got there.
Playbook? We got there.
TouchPad? Yep.  There too.

Should you choose to accept your mission:
http://html5.grooveshark.com/#soopersecretbeta
!!!  For covert opts points, try it on an html5 device not listed above and report your findings to Dr. Lovedoctor at lovedoctor@grooveshark.com for your bonus surprise.

I’ve tried out on an HP TouchPad, a Pre 3 and a Google Nexus S and can confirm that it works most of the time. On occasion, it wouldn’t start playing a track and once that had happened, I had to restart the browser to fix the problem. The app is pretty simple, no fancy cover-flow effects here. This is it on the TouchPad.

Grooveshark HTML5 Web App

Tap on a track and it starts playing. There are also genre “radio” stations for a continuous stream of tracks. Overall, it’s not bad but the tracks failed to start playing too many times for my liking.

I Feel Stupid

Windows Phone 7Over the break, there’s been a bit of discussion by some of the big names regarding the reasons why Windows Phone 7 handsets haven’t been flying off the shelves this holiday season. Charlie Kindel started the debate with “Windows Phone is Superior; Why Hasn’t It Taken Off?” and largely faults the relationship between the OEMs, Microsoft and the carriers.

MG Siegler responded with a fairly weak response largely citing the mantra of “too late and not enough apps” but as can be seen from today’s news of 50,000 apps in the Windows Phone Marketplace, the latter argument really isn’t that valid.

As usual, Robert Scoble hits the nail on the head. People buy Android or iOS because it’s a safe bet and they don’t want to look stupid or uncool by buying something else. Microsoft Windows Phone 7 and RIM’s Blackberries simply don’t have the gold-plated appeal of a sure-thing.

And he’s right. I was a big Palm fan and look how that turned out. I do feel stupid. After spending years waiting for Palm to move from PalmOS to WebOS and then HP promising to do big things. I bought in with a succession of Pre phones and pre-ordered a TouchPad. Maybe I shouldn’t be so shallow and have a less of an ego, because WebOS is a great operating system and even with the smaller app selection, it does 99% of what I need a phone to do. But when everyone else is, “Have you got this app and that app” on their Galaxy S IIs and iPhone 4Ss, you do feel a bit of a chump.

So thanks, HP. I feel stupid.

HP Gives WebOS To Open Source

HP WebOS LogoIn a surprise move, HP has announced that it will give WebOS to the open source community while continuing to support and develop the platform. HP believes that the combination of the superb WebOS platform combined with open source innovation and corporate support from HP, will foster innovation, creating a compelling user experience.

WebOS is the only platform designed from the ground up to be mobile, cloud-connected and scalable,” said Meg Whitman, HP president and chief executive officer. “By contributing this innovation, HP unleashes the creativity of the open source community to advance a new generation of applications and devices.

HP has said that it will work with the open source community to define the charter of the open source project based on four principles.

  • The goal of the project is to accelerate the open development of the webOS platform
  • HP will be an active participant and investor in the project
  • Good, transparent and inclusive governance to avoid fragmentation
  • Software will be provided as a pure open source project

No news was provided regarding other partners, new hardware or the specific handover timescale.

Undoubtedly more news will filter out over the coming days but it’s interesting move that may work out for HP and WebOS. HP gets to retain the patents it acquired from Palm to protect itself (and presumably WebOS) from attack, while hoping that the open source community and the homebrew scene will move the platform forwards. Future devices could appear from any OEM manufacturer, not just HP, but it will be interesting to see what the next WebOS product will be. Personally, I think it will be a printer.

WebOS App Catalog Revealed

HP WebOS LogoAnother week with no news from HP, another investigation by the WebOS Internals crew. This time they’ve directed their attention at HP’s App Catalog for WebOS to reveal everything you ever wanted to know…and probably some stuff you didn’t really care about.

– There are 8399 unique apps.
– There are 3514 apps that work on all WebOS devices.
– There are 5562 apps for the TouchPad.
– There are 6454 apps for the Pre 3.
– There are 6440 apps for the Veer.
– There are 7116 apps for the Pre 2.
– There are 6024 apps for the Pixi.
– There are 6761 apps for the Pre and Pre Plus.
– There are 1904 app contributors.
– There are 2642 apps that are free and 84 that cost $10 or more. 2638 cost 99c.
Accuweather is the first app in the Catalog.
Mayo Clinic High Blood Pressure is the largest app at 1.6 GB.
– It would cost $13,293.15 to download all the apps.
– It would take a 90 GB WebOS device to install them all. (Go on HP, let’s see a 128 GB TouchPad 2.)

Well, that’s probably enough for now. If you want to keep up-to-date on WebOS Internal’s work, you can follow @webosinternals on Twitter.

HP Still Thinking On WebOS

HP WebOS LogoHP has still hasn’t decided what to do with WebOS but appears to be taking the decision seriously. At an all-employee meeting last night with the WebOS team in Sunnyvale, new CEO Meg Whitman, reportedly said, “It’s really important to me to make the right decision, not the fast decision,” and “If HP decides to do this,we’re going to do  it in a very significant way over a multi-year period.

Setting this against reports coming out of Reuters that HP had engaged with Bank of America Merrill Lynch to sell WebOS for just hundreds of millions of dollars, rather than the $1.2 billion HP paid for Palm, it seems clear that Meg Whitman is seriously evaluating all the options for the future of the mobile operating system. She’s reportedly also said, “The question now before us is what do we do with webOS software and do we come back to market with webOS devices? It obviously will not be the same device but it will be version 2.0.”

What does seem to be clear is that any future thoughts focus on tablets rather than mobile phones. At the all-hands meeting, Whitman reportedly said that, “Things get more complicated if you add in phones.” While the TouchPad may continue, it sounds like Pre and Veer are dead as product lines whatever happens, but you never know.

On one hand, it’s easy to criticise HP for continuing to dither, but to me it appears that Meg Whitman is doing a proper evaluation of the options available, rather than taking the somewhat whimsical approach take by her predecessor Leo Apotheker. If WebOS is retained by HP in addition to the PSG group, it will be one of the biggest corporate turnarounds in history!

4.2 Million WebOS Users?

HP TouchPadOver the weekend, an amazing piece of detective work by the WebOS Internals team and some crowd-sourcing via Twitter has revealed that there approximately 4.2 million WebOS users, give or take.

Every WebOS phone or tablet user has to create a profile in order to use their device. Each profile has a unique identifier, a number that appears to simply increment by 1 as each new profile is created. Early Palm Pre adopters have identifiers typically in the 10,000s whereas those who started with the TouchPad are in the milllons. The profile identifier cannot normally be seen by the user but a Homebrew program called Impostah, developed by Rod Whitby and WebOS Internals, allowed this number to be revealed.

Using Twitter, WebOS owners were encouraged to come forwards with their identifier and the date they signed up so that a graph of identifiers against time could be plotted, showing the rise of WebOS and key moments in the timeline, such as the release of new devices. The graph, courtesy of WebOS Internals, is shown below and what you can see is a fairly steady rise reaching around 4.2 million. The most notable point is probably when HP had the TouchPad firesale and the graph climbs steeply. Click on the graph for more detail.

Graphing HP WebOS Usage

The number of profiles is slightly ambiguous when trying to convert to numbers of users or number of devices because while you can only have one phone per profile, you can have a phone and a tablet. For example, if you had both a Veer and a Pre 3 you would need two profiles, but if you had a Pre 3 and a TouchPad you’d only need one profile. Obviously, there are also accounts that have become dormant when the owner has moved to another platform.

In comparison to iOS and Android, both of which have in excess of 100 million users each, the 4 million-odd WebOS users are a drop in the ocean. Regardless, the graph shows that there was slow but steady adoption of a little under 2 million per year. Of course, HP continues to dither over the future of WebOS.

The WebOS Internals team are a bunch of hackers (in the best sense of the word) who created a whole Homebrew ecosystem under the Preware moniker that allowed Pre owners to add easily add patches and other software outside of the official App Catalog.  They’re probably WebOS’s best last chance.