Monthly Archives: February 2012

Images from Mobile World Congress – Huawei’s SmartPhone horse, a Lego robot that collects trash

There are some striking artifacts at Mobile World Congress this year. One is Huawei’s winged horse which stands proudly above one of the fountains.

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It is made of smartphones, as this close up of a leg shows.

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Impressive, though it is an expensive way to make a statue and I cannot help being reminded of the anti-capitalist protestors at the gate. Perhaps these are factory rejects.

Another amusing piece is this Lego robot which collects trash and drops it in the bin.

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Unfortunately I cannot remember what this is promoting!

Ford Microsoft car makes an appearance at Mobile World Congress

At the Showstoppers event just before the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona it was hard to miss the Ford car emblazoned with SYNC Ford Microsoft.

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So what is this all about? Apparently, the European launch of in-car computers that hook up to Ford’s cloud services. Cue all the jokes about “if your car ran Windows.”

You have to provide the connectivity, for example by docking your smartphone. You can then stream music with voice control, make calls again with voice control, or if you hear a funny noise, send a diagnostic report on your car to Ford or perhaps your dealer.

Why bother with an in-car computer running Windows embedded, when you could just dock a smartphone and let that do all the work? That was my question too, though there are integration benefits. Some details are being held back for an announcement tomorrow.

By the the way if you think the picture is rubbish, blames the Samsung Slate 7, which was used to create this entire post.

Imperfect Samsung Slate 7 tablet shows challenge facing Windows 8

I took advantage of a trip to Seattle to purchase a Samsung 7 Slate, similar to the one given to attendees at Microsoft’s BUILD conference last September, though missing some of its sensors.

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It is a decent machine, fast and well-specified, but not one I can recommend unless, like me, you are keen to give Windows 8 Consumer Preview the best chance to impress, and cannot wait the short interval until machines that are actually designed for Windows 8 turn up on the market.

This is a Windows 7 slate, and that is the main thing that is wrong with it, since Windows 7 does not work well with touch control. Samsung’s solution is to cover all the bases:

  • A stylus is supplied so you can use pen control as with earlier Windows tablets
  • There is a matching Bluetooth keyboard
  • Samsung has created its own touch-friendly desktop with a selection of apps, so that you can avoid the classic Windows desktop

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All these options make this an expensive device, but there are nevertheless a number of flaws and annoyances, some of which make you wonder “what were they thinking?” Here are some I have discovered in a few days of use:

1. There is an illumination sensor towards the top right of the screen bezel. This is a battery-saving measure, which adjusts the screen brightness according to the ambient light. Good thinking; except that if you are right-handed and controlling the slate with touch, your hand will often pass in front of the sensor. When that happens the screen dims, because it thinks the room is darker. The effect is that the screen constantly brightens and darkens in use, which is unpleasant. Fix: disable the feature and set the screen to a fixed brightness.

2. The on-screen keyboard is poor. This is the fault of Microsoft, not Samsung. If you have the keyboard set to float, the keys are too close together for fast typing. If you dock the keyboard, it becomes bigger, but impossible to use because it covers the bottom third of the screen. For example, it covers the search box on the Start menu when docked, so that you will be typing into it blind. Fix: Windows 8.

3. I got the matching Samsung wireless keyboard and found that the first key you press sometimes does not register. This is infuriating, especially for things like passwords. The reason, I discovered, is a setting in the Bluetooth card configuration “Allow the computer to turn off the device to save power.” When set, if you pause typing for 30 seconds, then the next key you press is in effect the on button and does not appear on the screen. Fix: uncheck this setting.

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4. When using wifi at a meeting, I found that every two or three minutes I had to re-enter the username and password for the wifi hotspot. Nobody else had this problem. Fix: I am not sure, but updating the driver for the Intel wireless adapter plus sundry other Windows updates fixed it for me.

5. It is difficult to run without full administrator rights on the machine, as several Samsung utilities prompt for elevation.

6. There is no security button. This is the button that emulates Ctrl-Alt-Delete when you log on to Windows. Instead, you hold down the Windows key and press the power on switch – when you have discovered that this is what you have to do. It is not mentioned in the quick start leaflets. To be fair, this is only likely to be an issue if you do as I did and join the machine to a Windows domain. Samsung does include a Touch Logon application which lets you secure your machine with a simple code instead.

7. The pen sometimes stops working, or more precisely, the screen stops responding to the pen. Fix: pressing the screen rotation lock button seems to kick it back into life.

8. There is some clever coding that disables finger control when you are using the pen, which is a Wacom digitiser and not just a stylus. The idea is that you can rest your hand on the screen when using the pen. This mostly works, but I still find pen control less good on this device than on older Tablet PCs which respond only to the digitiser. The problem may be that when you lift the pen away from the screen, touch control turns back on. Whether or not this is the problem, I find it too easy to get unexpected behaviour.

9. Navigating the BIOS is difficult without a USB keyboard. It can be done. Volume up and down substitutes for the cursor keys, the Windows button is ESC and the rotation lock is Enter. The hard bit: switching between pages with volume and rotation button together. Fix: a USB keyboard.

10. The one solitary USB port has a tiny loose plastic cover which will soon get lost. For that matter, I will probably lose the expensive digitizer pen as well since it does not clip into the slate nor into the official Samsung case.

Is this a poor device then? Not at all. It is powerful and light, and works very well indeed if you pop the slate into its dock and use it with a wireless keyboard and mouse. In this guise though, it is more like a desktop PC.

When used purely as a slate though, this machine is far less usable than either an iPad or an Android tablet, both of which are also much cheaper.

Even some of the good ideas do not quite work properly. If you tap with three fingers, a floating panel appears with common actions that are otherwise tricky with touch, such as Ctrl-C for Copy. A great use of multitouch, except that if I do this in Windows Live Writer, it also registers as a zoom command which enlarges the text. Annoying.

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All this is thought-provoking on the eve of the Windows 8 beta launch. Windows 8 in metro mode fixes the usability problems in the operating system, but will not prevent OEMs implementing half-baked ideas like Samsung’s illumination sensor. Further, people will buy Windows 8 tablets in part so that they can run desktop applications. How well will that work without docks, keyboards, pens and/or wireless mice, and high prices?

That said, Microsoft is aware of these issues which is why the Metro side of Windows 8 exists. The goal, I imagine, is that you will be able to stay in Metro all the time when using Windows 8 as a slate.

Where are the tablets for Windows 8 Consumer Preview?

Microsoft will deliver Windows 8 Consumer Preview shortly, probably on February 29th, since it has been promised by the end of this month and there is a launch event at Mobile World Congress.

The Windows Consumer Preview, the beta of Windows 8 on x86/64, will be available for download by the end of February. This next milestone of Windows 8 will be available in several languages and is open for anyone to download.

says Windows President Steven Sinofsky

The name of the preview suggests that Microsoft intends this release to be broadly downloaded and tried, in contrast to the developer preview with its more specialised role.

In preparation for the preview I looked around for a suitable tablet on which to test it – noting that it must be a Intel x86 or x64 tablet, since the ARM build (WOA) is not for general release, but only for manufacturers.

WOA will not be available as a software-only distribution, so you never have to worry about which DVD to install and if it will work on a particular PC.

Sinofsky writes.

So what is available? A quick Twitter consultation turned up a few options, such as the Acer Iconia Tab W500, the Asus Eee slate B121, and the Samsung Slate 7.

However, of these only the Samsung is really suitable, because it has a 1366 x 768 display. The others have 1280 x 800, and while this will run Windows 8 and the new Metro user interface, it will not support the Snap feature which gives you two applications on screen together:

The resolution that supports all the features of Windows 8, including multitasking with snap is 1366×768. We chose this resolution as it can fit the width of a snapped app, which is 320px (also the width designed for many phone layouts), next to a main app at 1024×768 app (a common size designed for use on the web).

Yes, it’s Sinofsky again.

Unfortunately the Samsung Slate 7 is not fully released in the UK, though I did find it on offer at ebuyer.com, for the not too unreasonable price of £973.19.

Samsung XE700T1A Series 7 Slate Tablet PC, Intel Core i5-2467 1.6GHz, 4GB RAM, 64GB SSD, 11.6" Touch, Intel HD, Webcam, Bluetooth, Wifi, Windows 7 Home Premium 64

That is still expensive, and it is hard to see it becoming a mass-market bestseller as Windows 8 fans rush to try out the new OS.

The consequence is that most users will try Windows 8 Consumer Preview on a virtual machine, or on an ordinary PC or laptop, or possibly on one of the cheaper 1280 x 800 tablets.

Since Microsoft’s main focus with Windows 8 has been on the new Metro touch user interface, this will not show the new operating system at its best.

I can personally testify to this. The Samsung slate handed out at the BUILD conference last September, which I had on loan for a few days, was delightful to use, whereas Windows 8 Developer Preview (the same build) is nothing special in a virtual machine.

All will be well, one assumes, when Windows 8 launches with both ARM and Intel-based machines available. Nevertheless, it seems to me a significant obstacle as Microsoft tries to build pre-launch enthusiasm; the risk is that users will not take into account how much better it is on a real tablet.

Update: a few other options have been suggested, like the Dell Inspiron Duo, a convertible 10.1” tablet with an Intel Atom  N570 Dual Core, 1366 x 768 display and 2GB RAM, and around one third of the cost of a Slate 7, but perhaps under-powered to show off the best of Windows 8.

What to do when your Nokia Lumia 800 will not turn on?

Nokia Lumia 800: delightful smartphone but with a few irritations. If you have one, I recommend that you do not let the battery fully discharge – a challenge since the battery life is not the greatest – since if you do, you may have problems turning the phone on again.

I am not sure what proportion of Lumias are affected, but what happens is this. The battery runs out and the phone turns itself off as you would expect. You plug it into the charger, but even after several hours it appears to remain uncharged and will not turn on. The problem is discussed in this thread: Lumia 800 won’t power on or charge.

This has happened with my review Lumia. In my case, the phone vibrated when plugged into the charger and the charging screen appeared, with a red line showing an empty battery, and there it stayed.

So what is the fix? I have had the problem a couple of times, and each time it eventually fixed itself, though it is hard to pinpoint the exact fix. Things people have tried:

  • Unplugging and reconnecting the charger to the phone
  • Attaching the phone to a PC, then to a charger
  • Reset the charging cycle by holding down the power button, while charging, for 8 seconds or so
  • Warming the device to create a small charge in the battery, then starting to charge it

One theory is the battery discharges so deeply that there is not enough power to detect the charger, therefore it never charges. Kind-of too smart for its own good.

If the phone had a removable battery, I would suggest removing and replacing it, an old trick to revive a frozen phone. Should your Lumia not be covered by a warranty, you could try disassembly in order to do this.

The best hope is that a further firmware update will fix the problem.

What is in BlackBerry PlayBook OS 2.0: new universal inbox and remote control

Here at BlackBerry Devcon Europe attendees were shown the key features of PlayBook 2.0, an update for the RIM tablet that will run on the existing hardware.

Aside from new runtimes for developers and some usability tweaks, the main changes users will notice are a new universal inbox and PIM (Personal Information Manager), and deeper integration between the PlayBook and BlackBerry smartphones.

The PlayBook 2.0 PIM offers a single inbox for Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter as well as email.

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The PIM includes an embedded web browser so that you can view HTML messages without leaving the application.

The application also covers calendar and contacts.

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If you look in detail at a meeting, you can see the other attendees, presuming that the information is available.

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One of the aims is to aggregate information drawn from social networks and from the internet. It is a compelling idea, and one that Microsoft has also used. For example, when you view an email the Outlook Social Connector automatically looks up status messages from FaceBook and LinkedIn from the author. Windows Phone also aggregates information from multiple social networks in its People hub.

RIM talked about adding web information. We were given the example of getting an email from someone and viewing recent press releases from their company within the PlayBook 2.0 PIM. If this is well implemented, it does make sense, giving you useful background without the need of a manual web search. A contact record is no longer just name, address and company, but a portal into that person’s story and current activity.

The other big new feature in PlayBook 2.0 is remote control. You can use your BlackBerry SmartPhone as a controller and input device for the PlayBook.

What is the point of this? A good question, to which the most obvious answer is that you can use the physical keypad on a BlackBerry to type on the PlayBook. This drew applause when demonstrated.

I asked for other use cases on Twitter. The main other suggestion was using a BlackBerry as a remote when your PlayBook is plugged into a screen as a media player or presenter.

The concept goes beyond this though. Here is new CEO Thorsten Heins speaking in the keynote:

Just take this idea a step further. Think about BlackBerry 10 being a platform, for mobile computing, for smartphones, so it really shows the deep integration of the BlackBerry platform. Think about having your PlayBook somewhere on your desk at your home, and you can control everything just from your BlackBerry, I think that is fantastic

Incidentally, RIM’s operating system naming is confusing. This is how it goes. BlackBerry OS up to and including 7.0 is the old smartphone OS that is being phased out. The new OS is based on QNX and first seen in the PlayBook, which runs Tablet OS 1.0. Version 2.0 of this OS, due out later this month with the features mentioned above, is called PlayBook OS 2.0.

BlackBerry 10 is the next iteration of this QNX-based OS and will run on SmartPhones as well as on the PlayBook. BlackBerry 10 is expected later in 2012, probably towards the end of the year.

RIM’s future depends on wide acceptance of BlackBerry 10. The uncomfortable question: how many mobile operating systems can succeed? It seems that Apple iOS and Google Android are well established, but the future prospects of new entrants such as BlackBerry 10 and Windows 8 is open to speculation.

Update: I visited the exhibition here and spent some time hands-on with the version of the PIM that is installed on the PlayBook devices. It is disappointing, though bear in mind that it is not, I was told, the final version (though if the final version is coming this month you would have thought it is not far off).

Some key points:

  • The embedded HTML rendering in the email client is just for the message itself. If you tap a link, it takes you into the separate web browser app.
  • In order to get social network status updates from the author of an email message, you have to be logged into that social network and the author must already be one of your “friends”, or so I was told. I hope this is incorrect, as it seems largely to defeat the purpose of this kind of integration. Outlook’s social connector retrieves status updates from anyone irrespective of whether you are logged into that network or have them on your friends list.
  • I asked about SharePoint integration and received the vaguest of answers. A SharePoint app is in preparation but there is no word on when it might appear, and it may be dependent on some sort of Microsoft input.
  • There is no official cloud storage service from RIM. You can use third-party services like Dropbox. Enterprises are expected to use internal file shares, via VPN if necessary.

It seems to me that RIM is in danger of missing an important market for PlayBook here. Many RIM customers use Microsoft’s platform because of the link with Exchange. A tablet with excellent support for SharePoint and Office 365 would have obvious value, and Microsoft can be expected to tap into this with Windows 8. BlackBerry could get there first with PlayBook but it looks like this will not be the case.

What will it take to make RIM’s Playbook sell?

I am at RIM’s Blackberry DevCon in Amsterdam (where it is so cold that the canals have frozen). Attendees have been given a free Blackberry Playbook, the neat 7” tablet running an operating system based on QNX, acquired by RIM in 2010.

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The Playbook was launched in spring 2011, and sales have disappointed. Exact numbers are hard to find; the Guardian estimated that RIM ordered 2.5m devices, while Crackberry.com says 5m. How many sold? In the three reported quarters, RIM said 500,000, 200,000 and 150,000 were shipped. Prices have been falling, naturally, but it seems that there are plenty left.

Nevertheless, this is an attractive device. The operating system is smooth and the size is convenient. Why has it failed?

One factor is that the device is designed as a companion to a Blackberry smartphone. Email does not work unless you have a Blackberry, or can get by with a web browser client. RIM thereby reduced the market to existing Blackberry owners, a mistake which should be rectified when version 2.0 of the operating system is released – expected later this month.

The second problem is the the extent to which Apple owns the tablet market. When you buy an iPad you know you are buying into a strong ecosystem and that every app vendor has to support it. That is not the case with the Playbook, making it a riskier choice. RIM’s fix is to introduce support for Android apps, though there are a few caveats here. Perhaps the biggest is this: if you want to run Android apps, why not just get an Android tablet and avoid any compromises?

The Playbook is a delightful device. The big question – for RIM and other new entrants into the tablet market – is what will make it sell, other than pricing it below cost?

Amazon found an answer for its Kindle Fire: low price, Kindle brand making it an e-book reader as well as a tablet, and a business model based on its retail business. Amazon can sell the device at a loss and still make a profit.

It is not yet clear to me what RIM’s answer can be. The most obvious one is to make it truly compelling for the large market of Blackberry smartphone users, but not if that means crippling it for everyone else as with the 1.0 release.

Another factor is that the device has to be nearly perfect. On the conference device, it took me 10 minutes to send a tweet. The reason was that the supplied twitter app is really a link to the twitter web site. That in itself is not so bad, but I found the soft keyboard unwilling to pop up reliably when twitter’s tweet authoring window was open. Making a correction was particularly frustrating. A small thing; but one or two frustrations like this are enough to make a good experience into a bad one.

Version 2.0 of the operating system does promise numerous improvements though, and watch this space for a detailed review as soon as I can get my hands on it.