Category Archives: Cloud computing

Microsoft Band: do you want to track your health? and with a Microsoft device?

Data on human health has immense value. At an individual level, use of that data has the potential to enhance well-being and productivity, to extend life, and in some cases to avert disaster – such as prompting early investigation into a heart condition. In aggregate, more data on human health enables deeper medical research, especially when combined with other data about lifestyle, profession, location, diet and so on. Medicine is big business, so this is a business opportunity as well as (one hopes) a benefit to humanity.

There is also a dark side to this data. The more data an insurance company has on our health, the more likely they are to exclude the conditions we are most likely to suffer (defeating the purpose of insurance) or to ratchet up premiums for worse risks. Do we trust the industry, whether that is the IT industry or the insurance industry, to safeguard our personal data from being used against us?

The value of this data goes some way to explaining the IT industry’s obsession with fitness gadgets, an obsession that seems to go beyond the demand. I tried a Fitbit for several months, a wristband version. It is a great device, and I found the data interesting, but not enough to motivate me to keep the thing charged up and on my wrist, after the novelty wore off.

The reality is that most of us strike a balance between keeping vaguely fit while not allowing health concerns to dominate our lives. Coffee may be bad for you, but it is also a lovely drink; there is no point in extending life if you cannot also enjoy it.

How much health data, then, is too much?

These questions are likely to come to the fore as increasing numbers of health-monitoring devices come our way, especially multi-purpose devices that do health monitoring as one of several useful functions.

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Enter Microsoft Band, which the company successfully kept under wraps until a couple of days ago. It’s $199, works with Windows Phone, Android and iOS, and packs in a lot of features, though its 48 hours battery life is too short for my liking (I am hard to please; my plain old watch has a 10-year battery life).

Band hooks into the Microsoft Health platform. There are apps for all three supported phones, and data goes into a cloud service which delivers “intelligent insights” for you. “The more you share with Microsoft Health, the more accurate and helpful your insights will become,” says the blurb. There seems to be a link with Health Vault, a service which provides for sharing of health information with health professionals; of course the company says privacy and security are highly protected.

If I buy one (only available in the US currently) it will be more for its non-health features. Microsoft Band (by linking to your mobile over low-energy Bluetooth) will do calendar alerts, email previews, plain old watch mode (so it is actually a smartwatch), facebook posts, Twitter messages, weather, and (on Windows Phone only), Cortana, Microsoft’s digital assistant.

There is a built-in microphone and you can speak to Cortana on the go. I’ve been trying Cortana since it was was announced at Microsoft’s Build conference earlier this year, and she/it is pretty good. Cortana is not just voice activated search; it is also an example of voice UI, so you can make appointments, take notes, or ask for directions. Its voice recognition and question parsing is impressive, in my experience, though of course not perfect.

As ever I have a developer’s eye on this and I think it is interesting. Voice recognition, touch screen, and semi-permanent link with a smartphone is a powerful combination, if Microsoft opens this up to developers; and I will find it surprising if it does not.

In fact, there are already third-party apps, if you count the Starbucks partnership. You can pair a Starbucks card with Microsoft Band, and pay for coffee with it. The method is rather low-tech: the Band will display a barcode which the Starbucks scanner can read, but still, it beats searching for your card or even pulling out your mobile.

And there is of course the health tracking aspect. There are a ton of sensors here:

  • GPS
  • UV monitor (detect when sunscreen is required)
  • Optical heart rate sensor
  • Gyrometer
  • 3-axis accelerometer
  • “Galvanic skin response”: probably measures electrical conductivity of the skin to assess moisture level
  • Skin temperature
  • Microphone and touch screen

Haptic vibration is used for alerts.

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Can Microsoft make a success of the Band and steal a march from Apple, whose Watch (which also does fitness tracking) is coming early next year? Apple’s device will be more beautiful, more expensive, and has more functions; but it will not work so well with Android or Windows Phone.

The big downer with Microsoft Band is that it is US only for the moment. Health Vault is already in the UK so we may see a UK release; the possibilities for global rollout are uncertain.

What to do if SkyDrive disappears from Windows 8.1 Explorer?

Here is the scenario. You are working away in Windows 8.1 and want to save a document to SkyDrive. You look for the SkyDrive link in Windows Explorer but it is not there.

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Don’t panic; your documents are most likely fine and you can get to them in the web browser via http://skydrive.live.com

Still, that is inconvenient. How can you restore the Explorer link, other than by rebooting and hoping it reappears?

The solution is to open a command prompt (press Start button and type command) and then type:

%systemdrive%\windows\system32\skydrive.exe

and press Enter. You don’t need to run the command prompt with administrator rights.

All going well, SkyDrive will reappear:

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What if it doesn’t? Now you have to check the logs or event viewer and look for specific errors. But the simple technique described first has always worked for me.

Amazon AutoRip: great service, or devaluing music?

Or possibly both. Amazon’s AutoRip service means that when you buy one of a limited, but considerable, range of CDs, you get an MP3 version in your Amazon cloud player for free. Even past purchases are automatically added, which means US customers have received emails informing them that hundreds or in some cases thousands of tracks have been added to their Amazon cloud player.

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The service adds value to CD purchases in several ways. You get instant delivery, so you can start listening to your music straight away, and when the CD comes in the post, you can enjoy the artwork and play it on your hi-fi for best quality.

Amazon is differentiating from Apple, which only sells a download.

An infernal creature lies in the details though. Here are a few comments from Steve Hoffman’s music forum:

Got Auto-rip Pink Floyd’s DSOTM 2011 mastering of the DSOTM SACD that I bought in 2003.

and

I now have autorips of cd’s I no loner own…..interesting concept.

and

I now have autorips of CDs I bought as gifts.

These customers have done nothing wrong. They bought a CD from Amazon and gave it away or sold it, but it is still in their Amazon history, so now they have the MP3s.

Another interesting point is that Amazon appears to treat all versions of the same recording as equal. This is why I have included the comment about the Pink Floyd album above. Record companies have done well over the years by persuading fans to buy the same CD again in a remastered version, sometimes with bonus tracks. The Beatles 2009 remastered CDs are a well-known example. But if customers with unremastered CDs are now getting remastered MP3s automatically, this type of sale is harder to make.

The gift issue is more serious. The terms and conditions say:

Albums purchased in orders including one or more items marked as “gifts” at purchase are not eligible for AutoRip.

and intriguingly:

If you cancel your order or return this album, our normal order cancellation and product return policies will apply regarding the physical version of this album. However, if you download any of the tracks on the MP3 version of the album from your Cloud Player library (including if you have enabled auto-download to a device and any of the tracks on the MP3 version of the album auto-download), you will be considered to have purchased the MP3 version of the album from the Amazon MP3 Store and we will charge your credit card (or other payment method) for the then-current price of the MP3 version of the album (which will be non-refundable and may be a higher price than the physical version of the album).

Someone therefore has thought about the problem, though I predict unhappy customers, if they buy a faulty CD, return it, and find they have been charged anyway thanks to an auto-download feature of which they might not understand the implications.

Note also that many CDs are purchased as gifts without being marked as gifts in Amazon’s system. The idea of marking items as gifts is that you can have gift wrapping and get an item sent to another address, but if you plan to do your own wrapping, it is not necessary.

Here is something else. Audio enthusiasts are not happy with MP3s, preferring the real and/or psychological benefits of the lossless CD format for sound quality. For many people though, the audio is indistinguishable or they do not care about the difference.

What do you do if you receive a CD in the post, having already downloaded and enjoyed the MP3 versions of the tracks? I imagine some customers will figure that they have no use for the CD and sell it.  Provided they do not return the CD to Amazon, I cannot see anything in Amazon’s terms and conditions that forbids this, though I can see ethical and possibly legal difficulties in some territories.

The consequence is that someone may lose a sale.

Subscription is the future

My view on this is simple. The only sane way to sell music today is via subscription – the Spotify or Xbox Music model. The idea of “owning” music (which was never really ownership, but rather a licence tied to physical media) is obsolete with today’s technology.

Amazon’s new initiative demonstrates how little value there is in a downloaded MP3 file – so vanishingly small, that it can give them away to past customers for nothing.

Tablets, laptops, smartphones: which form factors will win?

There have been several thoughtful pieces recently on device form factors and what you can and cannot easily do with tablets versus laptops versus smartphones.

Richard Gaywood says the iPad (it’s an Apple site) is “heavily skewed towards, but not entirely about, consumption” rather than creation. His observation is based partly on app statistics, partly on the lack of a keyboard (if you add a Bluetooth keyboard, he argues, an iPad becomes as bulky as a laptop), and partly on weak multitasking and the lack of an accessible file system.

Tim Bray currently carries a laptop, a small tablet (a Nexus 7 I guess) and a phone. He does not seem to be considering abandoning the laptop, but suggests that he might be able to manage without a phone:

I spent several months back in 2010-11 carrying around the original Samsung Galaxy Tab, which may have only been Gingerbread, but included a first-rate phone, and my handset rarely left my pocket.

John Gruber writes at unusual length about why Apple might or might not do a smaller iPad.

On the eve of the Windows 8 launch this is an interesting discussion. Windows 8 will renew the debate: is a tablet all I need, at least when travelling? And where will Google’s 7” Nexus fit in? I foresee this selling well simply because it is great value, but will it be packed in the flight case alongside a laptop and a phone, or left at home, or could it even replace laptops and bigger tablets?

We in the the great unknown; but I will make a few predictions.

First, laptops and indeed desktop applications (that is, not apps) are in permanent decline. That does not mean they will disappear soon, just that they will be used less and less.

The implication is that tablets will be used for content creation as well as consumption, and for work as well as for play. Will developers and designers still want huge multi-display setups? Yes, of course; but most people will get most of their work done with tablets.

Second, that unadorned tablets will win over complicated solutions like laptops with twisty screens (the old Tablet PC concept), styluses, transformers, and the like. My guess is that we will see lots of clever and expensive Windows 8 x86 devices that will only achieve niche sales. The ones that succeed will be the slates, and the traditional laptops.

Third, there may be merit in the keyboard case concept, particularly when the keyboard is very thin, as in Microsoft’s Surface with Touch Cover. On the other hand, keyboard cases that make tablets into laptops, like one I tried for the iPad, also tend to give tablets the same disadvantages as laptops: clam shell design, difficult to use without a desk, and so on. I have found that I prefer a loose keyboard in my bag. It does not take much space, and does not get in the way when not needed.

What about mid-sized devices like the Nexus? I am not convinced. They are too small for all your work, and too big to be phones. The large-size Smartphones like Samsung’s 5.2-inch Galaxy Note sort-of work: they sell to people who do not mind having a large phone. But most of us will end up with two devices in constant use, a phone and a tablet. In the office or study, add a large screen and keyboard to taste.

Would you be happy to visit your doctor online? John Sculley says most of us should

I’m at the Cloud Computing World Forum in London where former Apple CEO John Sculley has been speaking about healthcare in the cloud. Sculley is involved with a US company called MDLive which lets you make a virtual appointment with a doctor rather than turning up at your local surgery, sitting in the waiting room for an hour, and then getting 7 minutes consultation.

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Sculley says this puts together several strands:

  • Most visits to the doctor are unnecessary
  • In person visits are more expensive and there is always pressure to reduce costs
  • Sensor technology is in its infancy but promises much – we already have Fitbit and the like, which monitors exercise, but in future your mobile may alert you to an impending heart attack or perform other automated monitoring of your health, and upload data to an internet service.

I asked Sculley if there had been studies of accuracy of diagnosis from an in-person versus an online appointment. The online ones are actually more accurate, he claims, because they make better use of available data.

Sculley calls online doctor surgeries an example of “Domain Expertise as a Service”, the implication being that the same kind of logic will apply to other kinds of consultation, not just healthcare.