Filed under gadgets

Microsoft Surface

I just watched Microsoft’s first commercial for their Surface tablet. It sucks. I get it: you’re so very proud of that “perfect click” sound you engineered – but that’s not what you center a commercial around.

This is the Microsoft Surface commercial that I would make.

Opening shot shows an iPad on its home screen. “This is an iPad,” starts the voiceover. “All your apps are laid out, ready to launch.” The camera zooms in on one of the icons, “You tap here to see your appointments for today.” Switch to another icon. “Tap here to get updates from your friends.” Switch to another icon. “And you can tap here to see the weather – because it’s not actually 73 degrees and sunny.”

Camera switches to another tablet. This time it’s Surface. “This is the new Microsoft Surface,” says the voiceover. “All your apps are laid out, ready to launch.” The camera zooms in, showing all the information right on screen that would have required tapping and hunting on the iPad.

“But you don’t need to. Looks like I’ll need an umbrella for the football game today.”


Sure, Apple’s new iPod commercial is just as useless as the Surface commercial. But they can get away with that because everyone knows how an iPod works. The Surface is still an unknown to most people. I hope Microsoft gets more serious about their marketing as time goes on.

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The Trouble With Hubs

A few days ago, I posted my own thoughts and experiences with iOS 5. At the end of the article, I conclude that Windows Phone 7 would probably appeal to me, because it gets rid of the endless sea of icons and apps, and replaces them with dedicated “hubs”.

Well, way before that post – last year, in fact – I wrote an article about hubs, and the problems such a system has.

Well, here’s the part that worries me. While this concept is incredibly cool, it puts the responsibility on Microsoft to keep things up to date and fresh.  What the App concept buys you is that when new social networking services crop up (for example), people can write Apps on top of its APIs right away, and before you know it you’re linked in to the service.

With Microsoft’s hubs, how long will you have to wait for Microsoft to integrate a new social networking service?

Now, today, I see that Paul Thurrott has posted an article on what Windows Phone 7 still lacks, even with this year’s Mango update.

The first is a topic I’ve been meaning to address for some time now, which is a serious issue with a facet of Windows Phone that Microsoft has trumpeted, correctly, as its primary advantage over iOS and Android: The integrated experiences that, in many ways, obviate the user’s need to find, download, and then use a myriad of different apps to accomplish common tasks. When the Windows Phone–integrated experiences work, they work well. You can very easily share a photo to Facebook or Twitter, without having first installed and configured a dedicated app for either service, for example.

But in many cases, these integrated experiences don’t offer as much functionality as do the dedicated apps. So depending on your needs, the existence of an integrated experience might simply be obviated by the fact that it doesn’t do what you want.

Paul goes on from here to describe a scenario, using Facebook, that can’t be accomplished properly because Windows Phone’s implementation of the Facebook API is limited. And it isn’t the only example.

There are holes like this in all of Windows Phone’s integrated experiences, from the Twitter integration that doesn’t understand hash tags to the photo integration that doesn’t understand Flickr and is unable to upload full-sized versions of your photos, automatically, to the service of your choice.

Go read the article – it’s essential if you’re considering a switch to a different mobile platform, like I am.

But this point is of particular note, because it is the core of what makes Windows Phone different, and worth considering. I noted in my original article last year that if Microsoft opens up hubs to third party developers, that it will help keep things current and fresh. So far that hasn’t happened, and my guess is that when Microsoft does finally do this, it’s going to be limiting.

There’s no final answer here. But if Microsoft wants to stay in this game – and wants to tout the benefits of hubs – it needs to keep this stuff updated. Ignore this, and you can watch your platform die in a sea of obsolescence.

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iOS 5: The Devil’s Details

iOS 5Question: What is a review?
Answer: A thorough, unbiased evaluation with the intention of determining a final critique.

It may not be a proper dictionary definition, but this is what I expect when I read technology reviews. Most of the time, I am satisfied. But with the release of iOS 5, I was consistently disappointed. Gone was the thoroughness. Gone was the proper critique. They read more like summaries of the features listed in an Apple press release. There were some details, of course, but there was also a lot missing.

This is my attempt to fill in some of the gaps. I’m not going to attempt to do a full review. But I want to look at iOS 5 with fresh eyes, explore some of the details overlooked in other reviews, and briefly sum up how it compares to other mobile operating systems available today.

So, lets begin.

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Apple Announces the i_______, Available Immediately

Earlier today, at their Cupertino headquarters, Apple announced the latest entry in their “i” product line. Named the i_______ (pronounced “eye blank”), it allows customers to take their ideas for an iDevice, and make them official. “For years, we’ve been creating lustworthy gadgets that make friends, coworkers and complete strangers envious,” Steve Jobs explained in a press release. “Today, we are giving customers the ability to keep the people in their lives constantly envious, driving home the power of Apple’s innovation.”

The i_______ contains no electronics, and isn’t an actual working version of a customer’s idea. Instead, it is a sturdy, laminated piece of cardboard mounted on a solid aluminum back. The front features typical Apple minimalism, showing only your chosen i-product name, what it does, and when your idea was officially recognized by Apple. An idea plus three features is priced at $299. Additional features can be added for $49 each.

Only a few media representatives were allowed into the unveiling at Apple’s headquarters, ensuring they were the first to lay eyes on the product. Initial responses were positive.

"I’ve actually had an i_______ for a week now," admitted The Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg, much to the envious glances of other nearby journalists. "While it looks simple — just a sheet of cardboard declaring your official i-product concept — it takes on a whole new meaning when it’s in your hands. It becomes personal."

Surprisingly, the i_______ was available for purchase today, and lines have already started forming at Apple Stores across the United States. While select members of the media got the first look, it wasn’t long before everyone else got their chance to see Apple’s latest innovation.

Paul Thurrott, who runs the Windows SuperSite, offered a more measured response. “Quite simply, the i_______ is an evolution, not a revolution. It was only a matter of time before Apple moved beyond material objects, and into the realm of ideas, dreams and vaporware.” While Thurrott generally seemed impressed after buying an i_______ of his own, he found it difficult to ignore several shortcomings. In particular, Thurrott noted that, “…. Apple still hasn’t learned anything from the iPad. The i_______’s glossy, laminated front made it impossible to read in direct sunlight.”

Many happy customers were leaving Apple’s stores, even hours after they initially went on sale. Unlike the iPad 2, there appears to be plenty of stock. Customers were showing off their concepts for iAlarms, iCars and even iSpoons.

Marcel Jones, from Nashua, NH, was one of the early adopters. “It’s amazing! No other company lets you turn your ideas into something physical and real, in such an easy and innovative way. But Apple does, and it’s going to change the game forever!”

Mr. Jones did realize one possible issue with the i_______, however. “While obsolescence is always a problem, it seems particularly bad when your imagination is in charge. For example, for my iToaster, it would be perfect if there was a WiFi module that could send real time updates about your toasting adventure straight to your computer.”

Realizing he had just made his own newly-purchased i_______ obsolete, Mr. Jones’ smile quickly faded.


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New Mouse

A couple of years ago I got the Microsoft Sidewinder X8 mouse. It seemed like an awesome mouse at the time – rugged, enough buttons to be useful but not overwhelming, and the “works on anything” BlueTrack technology. It was a little big, but I have big hands, so I wasn’t too worried about that.

Well, it sucks. The receiver has to be really close to the mouse, or it doesn’t track smoothly. The feet on the bottom of the mouse (any of them! it comes with three sets of interchangable feet!) don’t glide smoothly on my mousepad. The battery doesn’t hold much charge anymore; and, to make matters worse, the charge cable doesn’t seat snugly on the mouse and will sometimes stop mid-charge. It was also awkward to hold – not because it was large, per se, but because it didn’t really attempt to fit your hand.

I finally got to my breaking point with it and decided to use some of my Christmas money to buy a replacement: the Logitech Performance Mouse MX. I’ve only had it for a few days, but so far it is blowing the Sidewinder out of the water. The receiver is tiny, but even from all the way at the back of my computer, it flawlessly picks up the signal from the mouse. The feet on this mouse are incredibly smooth, letting it glide easily on the mousepad. And the contours on the mouse make it easy to grip.

So, like I said, it’s still early days, but I have better hopes for this mouse. We’ll see how it goes.

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The State of Tech 2010

Once again it’s time for me to ramble about some of the interesting technology developments that happened this year.

And what a year! Before starting this post, I went back to re-read my 2009 post.  It seems like almost every question I concluded with was answered in some way in 2010. Last year, I summed up the year as being more evolution than revolution.  While I hesitate to say that this year was revolution, it was certainly more than the evolution of last year. So why don’t we get started?

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How To: Create a New Windows Boot Partition

Paul Thurrott recently wrote up an excellent article about how to replace your hard drive, but keeping your OS install completely intact.  The secret is using Windows 7’s backup "system image" feature to create a complete, bootable image of your old drive, then restore it onto the new drive. Check out the full article for the details.

But I always end up making things more difficult for myself.  When I was faced with a similar situation, I ended up taking a different route.

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iPhone 4 Display

One more post about the iPhone 4, and that’s it for now, I promise.  I found this picture that I took when I still had my 3GS: a comparison between the iPhone 4 display, and the iPhone 3GS display.

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iPhone 4 Camera

How good is the iPhone 4 camera?  I haven’t had a chance to really give it a good run, so on my way home from work today, I stopped and took some photos.  Once home, I used Windows Live Photo Gallery to stitch them into a panorama. Using Microsoft software to manipulate photos taken on an Apple device? Unthinkable!

Anyway, in all seriousness, here are the results.  For the most part, I’m impressed — especially considering these are coming from a camera phone.  But, they’re not nearly as detailed as the panoramic photos I took with my real camera while in Spain earlier this year.  Also, the afternoon sun didn’t play nice with some of the shots.

Here are the undoctored (except for being stitched together) photos. Click on them to see the full size pictures (they’re BIG, about 2-3MB each!).

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The Task at Hand

I was reading the latest entry on Paul Thurrott’s Windows Phone 7 Secrets blog, and it got me thinking about the whole multitasking argument that has been taking place since Apple’s iPhone OS 4 announcement.

So first, a quick summary: since the iPhone was launched, multitasking has been next to impossible. Except for a few of Apple’s own stock Apps, it is only possible to run one App at a time.  Once you hit that home button, everything goes away.  In most cases, this is not a big deal.  But sometimes, you just want to listen to Pandora while browsing the web.

Last year, Apple announced push notifications as one answer to the multitasking problem.  For example, on phones where multitasking is allowed, you could leave a Twitter client open, and it could notify you some way when your timeline updates.  As mentioned above, it wasn’t possible to do this on the iPhone.  With push notifications, though, an App developer could set it up so that they would monitor your Twitter timeline, and send a notification to your phone when something changes.  A bit of a roundabout method, but it gets the job done.

On Thursday, at Apple’s iPhone OS 4 reveal, they added another piece to the multitasking puzzle: task-based multitasking.  Certain things, such as listening to music, getting location-based information, or talking on a VoIP call, could be done in the background while you work on another task.  As you can see, this isn’t free-for-all multitasking.  But, it does answer the majority of scenarios that users cite when they complain about iPhone’s lack of multitasking.

What this all leads to is Microsoft’s upcoming Windows Phone 7.  This is almost a complete rewrite of the entire WIndows Mobile experience, and so I imagine that Microsoft is keeping its initial goals simple and straightforward.  I would also not be surprised if Microsoft took note of Apple’s simplistic “one App only” view and decided it was Good Enough for them as well.  But now that Apple is adding some form of multitasking, it has everyone declaring Windows Phone 7 as dead before it even ships.

What Paul’s article correctly points out is that Windows Phone 7 doesn’t need multitasking, because it is built around multiple tasks.  Huh?  Okay, let me break this down a bit.  Windows Phone 7 is built around distinct “hubs”.  There’s the picture hub, the music hub, the “I’m a social butterfly” hub – each one of these has an anchor in a certain theme, but pulls its content from many disparate sources.  So, for example, Pictures not only shows you the pictures you’ve loaded onto your phone, but also dynamic content from Facebook, or Flickr.  Go into your contacts hub, and it not only shows you your contacts and how to get in touch with them, but also their latest updates on Twitter, Facebook, and so on.

So the basic point is: why do you need to worry about multitasking, if everything is already right in front of you, in one hub?

Well, here’s the part that worries me. While this concept is incredibly cool, it puts the responsibility on Microsoft to keep things up to date and fresh.  What the App concept buys you is that when new social networking services crop up (for example), people can write Apps on top of its APIs right away, and before you know it you’re linked in to the service.

With Microsoft’s hubs, how long will you have to wait for Microsoft to integrate a new social networking service?

Sure, Windows Phone 7 supports apps, but can you imagine how annoying it would be if you had to not only view your contacts hub, but also jump out to a third-party app, to see the complete picture?

Or even worse, what if Twitter disappears? Or Facebook?  Or, more likely, what if something better comes along and everyone switches to the new service en masse?  Suddenly, your contacts hub is no longer relevant because no one uses those services anymore.

How long would it take for Microsoft to add support for new services? Would they ditch older services?

Of course, we don’t have a complete picture of Windows Phone 7 yet.  It might be that Microsoft will eventually allow third parties to hook into the hubs, if approved by Microsoft.  That would be a nice way to make sure things stay fresh.

But this worries me a bit.  The concept is amazing cool, and I think is a much-needed reimagining of how a mobile device presents information to you.  But with how quickly the internet evolves, something like this can break down quickly – and what used to be a nifty take on the multitasking issue ends up making things ten times worse.

Just my two cents.

Update: Oh, and yes, I realize that Microsoft’s solution doesn’t solve things like “listening to Pandora while browsing the web”, just like the iPhone  used to not allow.  I am sure eventually Microsoft will bridge this gap.  But there is still a fundamental rethinking, which helps to downplay the need for multitasking.

Update 2: So, Paul just made a new post in response to a recent interview. In said interview, it is mentioned that eventually third parties will be able to extend hubs, but that functionality won’t make it at launch. This is obviously good news, and helps alleviate some of my concern. I still worry about the long-term evolution of how these hubs are maintained, but it’s good to see that they likely won’t stagnate.

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