Category Archives: comment

What’s coming in Windows 8.1?

Microsoft is now talking in detail about Windows 8.1, essentially a service pack for the original release.

Windows Vista SP1 used the same core OS as Windows Server 2008 R2, so you might reasonably expect a similar relationship between Windows 8.1 and an updated Windows Server 2012.

So what’s new? My quick summary, with importance rating from 1-10:

You can make your lock screen a slide show (1)

You can set new animated backgrounds for the Start screen (1)

Start button always visible on the desktop. (6) since many struggle with this.

You can choose your desktop background as your Start screen background. This gets a (4) since it reduces the dissonance between desktop and Metro a fraction.

New super large tiles and new super small tiles in the Start screen. Rated (6) since it will help make the all-import initial view more comprehensive on large displays.


The Start screen view is now a “favourites” view. Apps do not add themselves by default (I am not sure if this applies to desktop as well as Store apps, but I hope it does). The All Apps view by contrast has everything. And you can set Apps view as the default if you want. All good changes. (5).

Easier grouping and rearranging of tiles. Rated (5) since this important feature is hard to find in Windows 8.0.

New combined web and local search in the Search bar:

In Windows 8.1, the Search charm will provide global search results powered by Bing in a rich, simple-to-read, aggregated view of many content sources (the web, apps, files, SkyDrive, actions you can take) to provide the best “answer” for your query.

I like the idea but I’m not optimistic about how useful it will be. Hedging bets with (5).

Improved built-in apps. Detail not given. Rated (6) as this is badly needed but the extent of the improvements are unknown.

Variable and continuous sizing of snapped views and support for multi-tasking Store apps across snapped views, multiple displays, and multiple windows of the same app. Fascinating. Handy improvements, but is Metro now re-inventing the desktop but with non-overlapping Windows as in some early windowing systems? What challenges are posed for developers who now have to deal with resizable apps almost as on the desktop? (7).

Improved Windows Store with related apps, automatic background update, on-screen search (no need for Charms). (5) but what we really need is better apps.

SkyDrive app supports offline files and “Save to SkyDrive”. (5) but the desktop one already supports this.

PC Settings more comprehensive so less need for old Control Panel. I’m sceptical though when Microsoft’s Antoine Leblond says:

The updated PC Settings in Windows 8.1 gives you access to all your settings on your device without having to go to the Control Panel on the desktop.

Internet Explorer 11, the “only browser built for touch.” (5) as features unknown.

Hmm, I have got to the bottom of the list and rated nothing higher than 7/10 Then again, I have not had hands-on experience yet. If Windows 8.1 fixes my annoying Samsung Slate unresponsive screen, that will be (9) of course.

The total update may be more satisfying than the sum of its parts. For my general take though on why this will not “fix” Windows 8 see here.

85% of user reviews are genuine says Gartner

Except that it doesn’t. The headline on the press release just received is:

Gartner Says By 2014, 10-15 Per Cent of Social Media Reviews to Be Fake, Paid for By Companies

The full paid-for report is here.

I think we can agree that fake user reviews are a Bad Thing; but the current agitation about sock puppetry among book authors and fake reviews in general seems to be missing the key point, which is that user reviews in general have had a transformative and beneficial impact and should be applauded.

Examples that come to mind are tripadvisor, which has hotel and restaurant reviews, user reviews in general on Amazon, and restaurant reviews on Yelp.

Since the emergence of sites like these, I have had fewer disappointments and more pleasant surprises in travel, books, music, technology and more.

That said, there are plenty of flaws in the various systems for gathering user opinions. The problems are not confined to the most extreme examples of paid-for reviews masquerading as genuine.

You often get what I think of as a smiley face effect, where across the spread of reviews there are disproportionate numbers that are highly favourable, because fans are more likely to post reviews, and disproportionate numbers that are too negative, because users who have a bad experience are more likely to post.

After all, if you use a product or service and it is so-so, why bother posting a review?

Another problem on sites like Amazon is competition for top reviewer status, which means reviews are upvoted by friends and downvoted by rivals, a kind of meta-sock-puppetry.

On balance, I reckon 85% is far too high, if you want a measure of what proportion of user reviews on social media are both genuine and useful. Certainly, Gartner’s headline seems back-to-front in terms of what would be more surprising.

Those reading the reviews should also be credited with some common sense. Most people will look for a balance of opinion over a quantity of reviews where possible, and observe which reviews seem to be based on a solid analysis of facts rather than on bland opinions.

Long live user reviews.

Nexus Q streaming device: you will use Cloud, you will use Android, says Google

Google’s Nexus Q is a streaming device. It is a spherical object with the following connections: optical S/PDIF digital output to connect to a hi-fi, wired ethernet, USB connection for “service and support”, and speaker outputs.


The top half of the Nexus Q twists to control the volume. Tap the top LED to mute the sound.

The built-in class D stereo amplifier is 12.5 watts per channel.

There are also 32 multi-colour LEDs on the unit which blink in time to the music. This could be annoying but presumably there is a way to disable it.

You can stream music and video apparently, only from Google. This can be your own songs uploaded to Google, or purchased from the Play store.

Why would you want to stream music from the cloud, when it is already stored locally in iTunes, say, or in FLAC for a Squeezebox system? Cloud streaming can be high quality, but playing uncompressed audio over the local network is better still.

Why does not Nexus support standards like DLNA (Digital Living Network Alliance) streaming, so that you could stream to it from a variety of media servers?

Most seriously, Google says:

Requirements: Phone or Tablet running Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) or higher with access to Google Play

Is Google really saying that you cannot control streaming to a Nexus Q with a PC, Mac, iPad or any other non-Android device? For example, I am sitting here working at a PC. Do I have to pick up my phone in order to control Nexus Q? Or run the Android emulator, I guess?

One mitigating factor: developers can install stuff on the Nexus Q via that USB connector. I am guessing then what we may see these missing features plugged by third-party efforts.

The Nexus Q has the concept of “social streaming”. What this means is that if you enable guest mode, anyone else on the network who has an Android device can also stream their music. That could be fun, or could be chaos, but it is an interesting feature.

Music shared on the device is transient, according to this Wired article:

The queue is a transient song list, and not an actual playlist. When you add a song to the queue, the Nexus Q owner can listen to the track for 24 hours, even after you’ve left.

The price is $299.

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.


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.

Which online storage service? SkyDrive is best value but lacks cool factor

This week both Microsoft and Google got their act together and released Dropbox-like applications for their online storage services, SkyDrive and Google Drive respectively.

Why has Dropbox been winning in this space? Fantastic convenience. Just save a file into the Dropbox folder on your PC or Mac, and it syncs everywhere, including iOS and Android mobiles. No official Windows Phone 7 client yet; but nothing is perfect.

Now both SkyDrive and the new Google Drive are equally convenient, though with variations in platform support. Apple iCloud is also worth a mention, since it syncs across iOS and Mac devices. So too is Box, though I doubt either Box or Dropbox enjoyed the recent launches from the big guys.

How do they compare? Here is a quick look at the pros and cons. First, pricing per month:

  Free 25GB 50GB
Apple iCloud 5GB $3.33 $8.33
Box 5GB $9.99 $19.99
Dropbox 2GB   $9.99
Google Drive 5GB $2.49 $4.99 (100GB)
Microsoft SkyDrive 7GB $0.83

and then platform support:

  Web Android Black
iOS Linux Mac Windows Windows
Apple iCloud X X X Limited X
Box X X
Dropbox X
Google Drive X X X
Microsoft SkyDrive X X X

Before you say it though, this is not really about price and it is hard to compare like with like – though it is obvious that SkyDrive wins on cost. Note also that existing SkyDrive users have a free upgrade to 25GB if they move quickly.

A few quick notes on the differences between these services:

Apple iCloud is not exposed as cloud storage as such. Rather, this is an API built into iOS and the latest OS X. Well behaved applications are expected to use storage in a way that supports the iCloud service. Apple’s service takes care of synchronisation across devices. Apple’s own apps such as iWork support iCloud. The advantage is that users barely need to think about it; synchronisation just happens – too much so for some tastes, since you may end up spraying your documents all over and trusting them to iCloud without realising it. As you might expect from Apple, cross-platform support is poor.

Box is the most expensive service, though it has a corporate focus that will appeal to businesses. For example, you can set expiration dates for shared content. Enterprise plans include Active Directory and LDAP support. There are numerous additional apps which use the Box service. With Box, as with Dropbox, there is an argument that since you are using a company dedicated to cross-platform online storage, you are less vulnerable to major changes in your service caused by a change of policy by one of the giants. Then again, will these specialists survive now that the big guns are all in?

Dropbox deserves credit for showing the others how to do it, Apple iCloud aside. Excellent integration on Mac and Windows, and excellent apps on the supported mobile platforms. It has attracted huge numbers of free users though, raising questions about its business model, and its security record is not the best. One of the problems for all these services is that even 2GB of data is actually a lot, unless you get into space-devouring things like multimedia files or system backups. This means that many will never pay to upgrade.

Google Drive presents as a folder in Windows and on the Mac, but it is as much an extension of Google Apps, the online office suite, as it is a storage service. This can introduce friction. Documents in Google Apps appear there, with extensions like .gdoc and .gsheet, and if you double-click them they open in your web browser. Offline editing is not supported. Still, you do not have to use Google Apps with Google Drive. Another issue is that Google may trawl your data to personalise your advertising and so on, which is uncomfortable – though when it comes to paid-for or educational services, Google says:

Note that there is no ad-related scanning or processing in Google Apps for Education or Business with ads disabled

Google Drive can be upgraded to 16TB, which is a factor if you want huge capacity online; but by this stage you should be looking at specialist services like Amazon S3 and others.

Microsoft SkyDrive is also to some extent an adjunct to its online applications. Save an Office 2010 document in SkyDrive, and you can edit it online using Office Web Apps. Office Web Apps have frustrations, but the advantage is that the document format is the same on the web as it is on the desktop, so you can also edit it freely offline. A snag with SkyDrive is lack of an Android client, other than the browser.


There are many more differences between these services than I have described. Simply though, if you use a particular platform or application such as Apple, Google Apps or Microsoft Office, it makes sense to choose the service that aligns with it. If you want generic storage and do not care who provides it, SkyDrive is best value and I am surprised this has not been more widely observed in reports on the new launches.

One of Microsoft’s problems is that is perceived as an old-model company wedded to the desktop, and lacks the cool factor associated with Apple, Google and more recent arrivals like Dropbox.

Apple iBooks Author aims at school textbook market, but beware the lock-in

Apple claims to “Reinvent Textbooks” with the introduction of iBooks 2 for iPad, along with an accompanying free authoring tool for the Mac.

iBooks Author is already in the Mac App Store and I had a quick look. It is template based, so the first thing you do is to make your choice.


I picked Contemporary, whereupon the authoring screen opened and I started to make some edits. If you divide Desktop Publishing (DTP) tools into those that are more oriented towards longer books, and those more oriented towards shorter but more graphically rich titles, then iBooks Author is in the former category. You can write the text in Pages or Word, and then import to iBooks Author. You can also add images, charts, tables, hyperlinks, and a variety of widgets including HTML, Keynote presentations, 3D models and more. The format of some of the widgets seems to be Dashcode, as used by the Dashboard in Mac OS X; certainly that is the case for the HTML widget.


I got a bit stuck on one point. I did not want the astronomy images in the template, but was not ready with an alternative. However I could not delete the image placeholder. It seems that the templates are somewhat restrictive.

Once your work is ready you can preview it. This is interesting. In order to preview, you attach an iPad, open iBooks on the iPad, and then select it in iBooks Author. A nice touch: the book appears on the iPad marked Proof.


There is also an animation as the book opens. In the grab below, you can spot the busy icon: this is because the smart cover disappears automatically so you have to grab it on the fly.


What about publishing? You can export your work in one of three formats: iBooks, PDF, or plain text.


Apple emphasises the licensing agreement right there in the Export dialog. You can only sell your book through the Apple iBookstore. Note also that the book is only for iPad. You cannot read it on a Mac, let alone on an Amazon Kindle, unless you choose PDF and make it available for free.

Here is the agreement in more detail:

B. Distribution of your Work. As a condition of this License and provided you are in compliance with its terms, your Work may be distributed as follows:
(i) if your Work is provided for free (at no charge), you may distribute the Work by any available means;
(ii) if your Work is provided for a fee (including as part of any subscription-based product or service), you may only distribute the Work through Apple and such distribution is subject to the following limitations and conditions: (a) you will be required to enter into a separate written agreement with Apple (or an Apple affiliate or subsidiary) before any commercial distribution of your Work may take place; and (b) Apple may determine for any reason and in its sole discretion not to select your Work for distribution.

I exported the book in iBooks format and took a quick look at the contents in an editor.


On a quick look, it seems to have a lot in common with a standard epub, but is nevertheless a proprietary Apple format.

Finally, a few observations. I have no doubt that eBook usage will grow rapidly in education as elsewhere, and the iPad is a delightful device on which to read them, though expensive.

I do have nagging concerns though. In typical Apple style, this is an only-Apple solution for authors or publishers who need to charge for their work. Does it really make sense for schools and colleges to recommend and use textbooks that can only be read on Apple devices? Of course publishers can repurpose the same underlying content for other formats, though they will have to be careful how they use iBooks Author to avoid falling foul of the licensing clause quoted above.

Is there no way to reinvent textbooks without an Apple tax and locking knowledge into proprietary formats?

Hard drive shortage, price madness

Now and again in the computer industry there is a shortage of components, everyone panic buys the stock and prices shoot up.

This is happening now with hard drives. Here is what Seagate told its partners:

As has been widely reported, the severe flooding in Thailand is a tragic situation for families and businesses across the region. Currently, all Seagate facilities in Thailand are operational and our production is not constrained by either internal component supply or by our ability to assemble finished products. Rather, we are constrained by the availability of specific externally sourced components. As a result, industry demand will significantly outstrip supply at least for the December quarter and the supply disruption will continue for multiple quarters.

How long the disruption will last is hard to guess, but bearing in mind that manufacturers will be racing to restore production I doubt it will be really long-lived.

In the meantime though, buyer beware. Drives that you could once find for £50 or so in the UK are suddenly three times the price.


The best advice is to postpone that upgrade you were planning. If you cannot wait, it is still worth shopping around.

New Sony PlayStation Network hack: not as bad as you may have heard

Sony’s Chief Security Officer Philip Reitinger has reported a new attack on the PlayStation network leading to headlines stating Sony hacked again. Has the company not learned from the incidents earlier this year?

Actually, it probably has; the new hacking attempt does not exploit any weakness in Sony’s network unless you consider any system reliant on username/password to be weak – not an unreasonable opinion, but given that the likes of Apple and Amazon and PayPal still use it, hardly fair to single out Sony.

If you read the statement carefully, it says that somebody obtained a large list of username/password pairs and ran them against Sony’s network. Further:

given that … the overwhelming majority of the pairs resulted in failed matching attempts, it is likely the data came from another source and not from our Networks

Because of the large number of PlayStation users, there were still 93,000 successful matches, which to its credit Sony says it detected – presumably there was a pattern to the attack, such as a limited range of source IP numbers or other evidence of automated log-in attempts.

If Sony is right, and the list of passwords came from another source, there is no reason why the hacker might not try the same list against other targets and this is not evidence of a weakness in the PlayStation network itself.

As Reitinger notes:

We want to take this opportunity to remind our consumers about the increasingly common threat of fraudulent activity online, as well as the importance of having a strong password and having a username/password combination that is not associated with other online services or sites. We encourage you to choose unique, hard-to-guess passwords and always look for unusual activity in your account.

It is good advice, though can be impractical if you have a very large number of online accounts. Something like PasswordSafe or Keypass is near-essential for managing them, if you are serious about maintaining numerous different combinations.

From what we know so far though, this is not evidence of continued weakness in the PlayStation network; rather, it is evidence of the continued prevalence of hacking attempts. Kudos to Sony for its open reporting.

Same price: four eMachine ER1401 or one Apple Mac Mini

This machine at caught my eye:


For your £130 you get AMD Athlon Dual Core K325, 2GB RAM, 250 GB hard drive, NVIDIA GeForce 9200, HDMI out, and Linpus 9.5 Linux. The ER1401 also include wifi, 2 USB ports, S/P DIF digital out, headphone out, wired ethernet, and VGA for a standard computer display.

I probably would not have noticed it, except that I have just purchased a Mac Mini:


The Mac has plenty to offer over the ER1401 of course. There is not only the slick new OS X Lion OS, but also a Thunderbolt port, Bluetooth, 4 USB ports, twice as much hard drive space, memory upgradeable to 8GB rather than 4GB, FireWire 800 port, and an SDXC card slot.

Linux is free, but if you decided to put Windows 7 on your ER1401 the cost would climb a bit.

Still, it happens that the Mac mini, Apple’s cheapest Mac, is just over four times the price of the ER1401. If you just need a small computer to do some task like playing BBC iPlayer on your TV, or running Squeezebox server, the eMachine model wins the value prize.

Apple’s uneasy relationship with its retailers

I’m at an event run by an Apple accessory distributor, showing off the latest add-on gadgets. Met someone whose company has a number of high street stores selling Apple products.

“What do you do when an Apple Store opens in the same town as one of your shops?”

Answer: “It screws us”

That shop becomes instantly unprofitable.

The consequence: one retailer said it is inevitable that Apple-only retailers will diversify and start selling Windows, Android and so on.

It is a bitter pill since Apple itself encouraged independent retailers to invest in prime retail sites – only to compete with them a year or two later with it’s own stores.

Resellers are also facing competition from the Mac app store, selling previously profitable applications like Final Cut and of course the next version of OS X, Lion, either exclusively or at prices with which they cannot compete.

Does Apple care? Well, it seems there is one team tasked with supporting independent resellers, and another tasked with finding good sites for new Apple stores, and the two do not talk to each other. Which I suppose is what you would expect.

Apple may deliver the most user-friendly devices out there, but that does not make it a nice company to do business with.