A New Phone – Galaxy S4, but not really by choice

I finally upgraded my phone last week, having given up my previous phone when I switched employers at the end of June. My previous phone was a Windows phone (a LG Optimus Quantum), which I really liked, but it was 2 and a half years old, showing its age, and stuck on Windows 7.8.

I struggled for quite a while trying to decide what phone to get. A big challenge is that I do not really use a phone as a phone very much. Almost all of my communications is email, sms, Facebook, Twitter, etc., all which I could do as well or better on a small tablet (except SMS). Still, I do need a phone sometimes, just not very often.

My first choice was to get a new Windows 8 phone, because I love the whole Windows Phone user experience. Unfortunately, there a number of obstacles to getting a Windows Phone:

  • All of the Windows phones on the market here in Canada are almost a year old, which is pretty old in this market. The only new activity is with the Lumia line, which unfortunately only available from Rogers in Canada (and I absolutely, positively will NOT do business to Rogers).
  • The carrier I deal with primarily is Bell, and Bell’s interest in Windows phone has always been marginal at best. There is one device listed on their web site, and none available locally at their retail outlets.
  • Microsoft’s whole story on Windows Phone scares the crap out of me. I have no confidence in their commitment to the platform, and no confidence that if I buy a Windows Phone 8 device now that I won’t be orphaned in 6 months.

So, Windows Phone was pretty much a non-starter this time around.

So, I started looking at Android devices (I am not quite crazy enough to drink the Apple koolaid yet!). I was primarily considering three devices:

  1. Galaxy Note 2
  2. Galaxy Note 8
  3. Galaxy S4

As most who know me know really well, I love devices that I can write on. Hence my interest in the Galaxy Note products.

I was really excited in late June and early July when I read that the LTE version of the Note 8 was coming to Canada, and that it supports phone calls. Yes, I know, it would be a big-ass phone, but for the amount I use it as a phone, it would be fine (with a bluetooth headset, or in hands-free mode in the car). Unfortunately, the version released in Canada does not support phone calls (we are screwed once again – not sure if this is Samsung’s decision, or Canada’s carriers, or the CRTC, but it really pisses me off!) So my dream of having a single device covering all of my needs was dashed.

I also gave serious consideration to the Note 2. While it does support handwriting, it is a little too small to really be useful for document review, note-taking, etc. In addition, the Note 2 is approaching obsolescence with the Note 3 rumoured to be due out in a few months. Again, not crazy about the idea of being stranded on last-generation hardware. Finally, it is a little big as a phone. In a way, it is a “worst of all worlds” device, being too small to be a good tablet and too big to be a good phone.

So in the end, I went ahead with the S4 (despite the fact that Canada got screwed on the processor). I have had it for a few days now, and while the user experience does not come close to Windows Phone, it is adequate. The camera is a huge leap from my previous phone, especially the low-light performance. I am just discovering the apps that I like (beyond the basics that I found right away). One thing that is annoying (though I knew about it before buying) is the amount of storage taken up by the OS + Samsung bloatware. On a 16 gb device, to have over half of it taken up by the OS and vendor components that cannot be uninstalled is just sick. I immediately picked up a memory card, and that alleviates the problem somewhat, but it is still annoying.

I may post a more thorough review once I know better how I feel about the device.

 

Windows 8: 5 Things that Really Bug Me

I have been running Windows 8 for a while now (as many people have, given Microsoft’s approach to releasing “previews”). I started playing with it just after the //Build/ conference in 2011, and switched to running it full-time on all of my day-to-day computers back in June. I even blogged a bit about my initial experiences, but I stopped because there was not that much to write about. It is my personal experience that once you get past the initial shock of the user interface changes, doing day-to-day work on Windows 8 is not all that different than Windows 7 (note I am referring to Windows 8 here, not Windows RT).

I really like Windows 8, but I am not sure I would upgrade to it “just because”. If it is on a computer I buy, I will enjoy using it, but will likely not upgrade any more machines.

But…there are some things about Windows 8 that annoy me to no end. Like most things Microsoft does, Windows 8 is 80% great, and 20% ranging from annoying to intolerable. Here are my top 5 issues (at least for today).

It Is Not Finished

This has been said by many reviewers. Some refer to it as not finished, others as schizophrenic. Still other descriptions have been even more colourful.

My issue is specifically with the features which require you to switch to the traditional desktop to do things.

One example is computer settings. While the Settings charm allows you to get to some settings (either directly or via the Change PC settings link), the vast majority of settings require you to jump to the Desktop and open the Control Panel, just as you always have.

Sorry, Microsoft, that is just plain lazy. If there is a setting to which you want users to have access, then present it through your Modern UI.

Another example is Windows Explorer. Why do I have to go to the Desktop to move files around, look for files, etc. I can see maybe having the Desktop Windows Explorer there as a last resort, but I should be able to do anything a normal user would want to do with files through the primary UI. If Microsoft cannot figure out a good way to use the Modern UI paradigm to implement file manipulations, then it isn’t a very strong paradigm.

 The Mail App

I am torn on my opinion of the Mail app. Actually, no I am not – I hate it.

For the most part, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it (other than the lack of support for POP3 – I mean come on!). There is also nothing especially right about it either. It looks like pretty much every other mail client out there.

When I read the post Building the Mail app, it is clear that the team put a lot of thought into how to build the Mail app. Unfortunately, much of it was wrong.

Yes, it supports various “Windows 8 glitter”, like sharing contracts, search, Live Tiles, pinning accounts, etc. But is that enough?

I really would have liked to see email “reimagined” a little . The way it came out just looks like traditional email prettied up a little (very little). Could no one imagine any strategy using the Metro design language/Modern UI to actually make working with email better?

The PDF Viewer

What could go wrong with a PDF Viewer, right?

Well, how about not remember things like how I use the software? Or at least giving me the ability to tell the software what settings I want to change?

The big one for me is Continuous versus Single Page reading. I like to have PDFs in continuous mode. And, every time I open a PDF in the PDF App, I tell the app I want to use Continuous view. And every time, it forgets.

I know this is a nit-picky kind of thing – but it is endemic in Microsoft’s Apps. To not remember my preferences automatically is bad design. To not even allow me to set my preferences is unforgivably bad design.

SkyDrive App

Ok, this is another very small thing, but I run into it so often that it drives me nuts.

Open the SkyDrive App, select a file, and click the download charm. You are then presented with a UI to allow you to choose a destination folder, and a button that says “Choose this folder”. So far so good, right?

Click the button. The button then switches to say “Ok”. Congratulations! You have now added one completely useless interaction to something I will do all the time. Yes, I might have selected the wrong folder, but it is hardly irreversible. If it is the wrong folder, I can move it. Don’t annoy me on every interaction, just to handle the “exception” case.

Office Apps

I am not talking about the Office Desktop applications here, or even the Office RT applications, but about the Modern UI/Windows Store apps – OneNote MX, and Lync 2013.

Both of these are cute proof-of-concept sort of apps, but they are functionally really disappointing. I sympathize that the Office team was probably brought into the game quite late, and that they were in middle of their own major product release cycle, but better not to release anything that what you have. Neither of these are good examples of Modern UI apps, and some of the missing pieces are really stupid (why can’t I change the pen colour in OneNote MX? why can’t I pin a User or Group from Lync to the Start menu?)

There are other things that bug me, but these are the five which are top of mind today. I also kind of annoyed at some of the limitations of the App development model, but that will have to wait for another post!

 

Windows 8 Adoption: My Predictions

With Windows 8 rumoured to go RTM near mid-year, and released before year end, I thought I would hazard a few predictions about its acceptance/adoption:

The new Windows 8 Start Screen, making use of ...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  1. Apple users will hate it. Why? Because it is not from Apple, and nothing cool can from from anyone but Apple.
  2. Linux users will hate it. Why? Because it is from Microsoft, and Microsoft is the root of all that is evil in the universe. Oh, and it has a GUI.
  3. Android users will hate it. Again, because it comes from Microsoft.
  4. Many Microsoft fans will love it, but will be afraid to admit it in front of their “cool” Apple and Android friends.
  5. Microsoft Marketing will fail. I hope this is not the case, but the last half dozen years or so leads me to believe that Microsoft cannot communicate with consumers (except XBox consumers, and gamers are a little different anyway)
  6. Other than on a tablet or other touch device, no one will upgrade to Windows 8 until they absolutely have to (unless I am wrong and Microsoft marketing hits it out of the park).

I don’t think these are particularly high risk predictions!

P.S. – I personally really like Windows 8 and the Metro UI (not crazy about the HTML5 + JavaScript development model, though).

Windows 8 is for the Right Handed?

As I have played with Windows 8 (both the Developer Preview and the Consumer Preview), I have gotten the distinct feeling that it has been developed assuming a right-handed user. For example, access the system charms works much more consistently with my right thumb as opposed to reaching across with my left hand.

Tonight, while reading through some of the developer documentation for the consumer preview, I came across the following statement:

Untitled

Apparently it is ok to ignore 10% of the population when designing your user experience.

Windows 8 tablets secret weapon: OneNote and inking | ZDNet

Windows 8 tablets secret weapon: OneNote and inking | ZDNet.

This has always been my view of Microsoft’s tablet strength, and the competitors’ glaring weakness. For me, without a viable input method (and the onscreen keyboard is not a viable input method for anything more than 140 characters), existing tablets are nothing more than one-way consumption devices.

I, too, used slate tablets + OneNote for all of my note-taking. Not just in meetings, but when I was brainstorming, researching new ideas, collecting and annotating content from the Web, etc.

I have OneNote notebooks with every note I took from 2003 through 2008, all searchable, and all with me all the time. The only reason I stopped was because my slate tablet died a slow death, and all of the newer Tablet PCs I have tried are complete crap for handwriting (mostly because of the introduction of and focus on touch).

However, this is just me, and the way I work. As I discussed in a previous post, this is not the case for millennials (or however you want to label the up-and-coming generation). For my kids, handwriting is awkward and slow. They would much rather type things, even on smartphone keyboards, or onscreen keyboards. Writing is an absolute last resort. Look also at the fact that a number of education departments are now removing cursive writing from the curriculum. For better or worse, in the next generation, handwriting may become almost unknown.

So for Microsoft, Windows 8, tablets, and handwriting, it will ultimately come down to (as it almost always does) answering the question who is your target market?. If Microsoft is going after the same people who buy iPads, and Android slates, then handwriting may not be much of an advantage at all.

In fact, it may just make those people think “more old fashioned stuff from Microsoft”.

Bing Maps WPF Control Beta with Surface 1.0

Microsoft surface table
Image via Wikipedia

As announced on the Microsoft Surface Blog (and elsewhere, I am sure), a Bing Maps WPF Control Beta has been released. This control targets WPF4 with functionality similar to the Bing Maps Silverlight control.

As a WPF4 control, with support for touch, it will also work in the Surface 2.0 environment. For those of us developing on the Surface 1.0 hardware, which of course runs over .NET 3.5, I wanted to see if I could make it work there.

Some time ago, Josh Blake wrote a post on how to write WPF4 applications for Surface 1.0 using his Blake.NUI library.

Using that same approach, I was able to build a simple application using the new Bing Maps Control under WPF4 on my Surface 1.0 hardware. On the downside, the app seems a little jumpy when panning, but I may be able to clean that up with some more work This is a start, though.

So, Apple deserves a 30% slice of all content you buy?

I was having a discussion this week with an old colleague regarding Apple’s content purchasing policies, and about the crippling of the Kindle, Nook and Google Books apps, as described here.

I was told I was a “Windows Snob”, and that “You and Fortune are criticizing a company for not wanting to send customers to their competitors site in a capitalist society?”

On the one hand, I agree. In a free, capitalist society, Apple has the right to do any damn thing it wants on its platform, to its partners, and to its customers – in the interest of scraping in even more profits.

However, that does not make their actions admirable, or in the best interests of their customers. And it does not mean that consumers should blindly accept this behaviour (though most users of Apple users have drunk so much of the kool-aid that they can no longer even think of life without their Apple products).

The basic premise being argued here is this: does owner/developer/vendor of a platform have the right to only allow you to buy content through them, and the right to a slice of all revenues for content on that platform?

Lets look at a couple of analogies, first to desktop computers, and second to browsers.

Lets think first about computer OS vendors. Would it be acceptable for a computer vendor (Apple or Microsoft) to not let you buy anything on any web site on your computer without giving them a 30% slice? Say Microsoft (always seen as the greedy capitalist in the crowd) tried to make this happen in Windows. How long would it be before consumer groups and the DoJ cried foul, fined them, and made them change the practice?

Lets think now about browsers now. Would it be ok for your web browser to ONLY go to web sites the were registered with and “approved of” by the browser vendor? Or for every e-commerce transaction in your browser to belong to the vendor, and give that vendor a 30% slice? I am pretty sure most users would complain about this.

The fact is, Apple’s policies in this area are flat-out wrong, and are anti-competitive. Any other company would not be allowed to get away with limiting choice the way Apple does, but Apple has much of the world so completely brainwashed with marketing hype that no one even questions them anymore.

Microsoft is evil, lame, and sucks, right?

WRONG!

Give me a freaking break!

I was just reading a post over on TechCrunch. I do not know why I allow myself to get drawn into reading this drivel, but I always seem to.

When are the anti-Microsoft crowd going to grow up and realize that this is a business, and we are all in it to make money and increase the value of that business.

(including, of course, Google and Apple – but it is somehow ok for them)

For those who do not want to waste time and bandwidth reading the actual post, I will summarize a bit:

  • Microsoft participated in the consortium which purchased the “Nortel Patents”, even though MS apparently did not need to
  • Microsoft is pursuing licensing agreements with Android phone vendors based on other IP which MS already had
  • Microsoft stands to make a lot of money from these agreements
  • Microsoft is obviously “lame” for doing this (seriously, who actually uses the term “lame” anymore?)
  • Microsoft is doing this (obviously) because they cannot compete with Android by being innovative.
  • It would be OK if Apple were doing this, since Apple can do no wrong

So lets take a look at this from a more realistic point of view.

  • Microsoft is a business. It is in business to make money, and increase shareholder value. Period.
  • Microsoft owns certain patents. A lot of them. It owned this IP before participating in the Nortel deal.
  • Microsoft felt that participating in the consortium to buy the Nortel patents was valuable in terms of protecting its IP position.

So far so good. Lets look at the Android situation.

  • Android (apparently) infringes upon a number of patents which Microsoft owns. I am not in a position to assess this, but I would suspect there is some validity to the claim or Android phone vendors would not be signing agreements with MS without fighting.
  • If this is the case, Google is making money selling something for which they do not have clear intellectual property rights. And this is somehow Microsoft’s fault?

The statement is made that Android is winning because Google “out-innovates” Microsoft. Lets compare the two:

  • Google has a mobile phone OS named Android, based on an existing open-source OS, using a programming model which some believe they do not have valid IP rights to, and using a UI paradigm which clearly borrows heavily from another famous mobile phone (though I do think Android improves on it).
  • Microsoft, after lagging for a long time, has introduced a new mobile phone OS, written from the ground up, using a unique UI model which is clearly theirs, and with a development environment to which they own the IP, and which is also highly innovative.

Whether WP7 succeeds or fails, and whether you happen to like it or not, from an innovation perspective it is clearly well beyond Android.

So what is Microsoft’s strategy? Well, it appears to be two-pronged.

Having invested heavily in innovation, they are clearly focused on the future of WP7. They intend it to be a success. Whether or not they are successful is more a question of their timing and marketing ability than their level of innovation.

At the same time, Microsoft has quite rightly taken action to preserve the value of its intellectual property. They have also leveraged their ownership of this IP to make money and increase shareholder value.

It seems to me like Microsoft is doing exactly what a business is supposed to do, and doing it well in this case.

Finally, I just have to comment on this little snippet form the post:

“When Apple takes these agressive (sic) approaches on patents, it’s no more right, but at least they can argue that they have a winning product (the iPhone) that they’re trying to protect. Their goal isn’t to get other companies licensing their patents, it’s to run those guys out of the market”

At least he acknowledges that Apple is “no more right” than anyone else in this process. It is the final statement that gets me. So, it is more admirable to crush your competitors and drive them out of business than to license technology to them, allowing both parties to survive and make money?

Of course it is, since we all know it is better to only have one choice in the market, as long as that choice is Apple!

(in case that was too subtle for any of you, that was sarcasm )

Microsoft: Get Your Shit Together on Touch Development

Testing Samples from Microsoft Surface Toolkit...

Image by John Bristowe via Flickr

I have been playing with multi-touch development for a while, both on Windows 7 with my 2740p and on the Microsoft Surface table (version 1, not the new one).

I have consistently had challenges using WPF4 multi-touch events on the 2740p, or using the Microsoft Surface Toolkit for Windows Touch Beta, and now with the newly released Surface 2 SDK.

With any of these tools, I have challenges getting the software to recognize touch events, and even more trouble getting the software to recognize 2 simultaneous touch points (the 2740p supports 2 touch points). A second touch point always cancels the first touch point.

What is funny (to me, anyway) is that the samples included with the machine in the Microsoft Touch Pack for Windows 7 work just fine on the 2740p. This indicates that it is something in the managed drivers used with WPF that is not working.

I am fairly certain that this is a driver issue. I had it working at one point after a lot of hacking and installing drivers different from the default updates. I guess an update somewhere (Windows Update, or HP Tools) has overwritten the driver I had setup to make it work.

Can I fix the drivers to make this work again? Absolutely! But that is not the point here.

This should just work!

How am I as a software developer, or as an ISV, supposed to recommend this platform to my customers, or build applications for it, when even getting it to run on different machines requires significant hacking of drivers?

If Microsoft wants to stop being seen as a joke in the multi-touch and/or tablet market, they really better find a way to get their shit together on this.