Category Archives: Mobile

Oh Samsung

About the rumoured Samsung finger print sensor:

SamMobile claims that as you swipe over the sensor, a “real-time image of your fingerprint” appears on the display. Contrast that to the iPhone 5S, which doesn’t store actual fingerprint images on the device, and you’d think privacy advocates and grandstanding lawmakers would get more riled up with Samsung than they did with Apple. (They probably won’t.)

Oh Samsung.

A Mac and iPad user’s view of the Surface Pro 2

Back in 2003, the fully-fledged Windows Tablet PC was a pretty amazing machine. You could work on it (I wrote hundreds of thousands of words on my Acer C110, with its 9in screen and tiny keyboard). You could play games on it. You could read on it. You could do everything you could on a laptop and more. It cost more than a normal laptop, and the performance tended to be lacklustre compared to laptops of the same price. But it allowed you to do things no other laptop could do, from note taking using a stylus (with handwriting recognition which put the Newton to shame) to reading nascent ebooks in a much more natural way than on any other device. It was expensive, and clunky, but it worked.

Or at least, it worked for me. Unfortunately, it didn’t work for the rest of humanity, which – despite the constant promotion of the platform by Bill Gates – took one look at Tablet PC, went “huh?” and bought normal laptops instead.

Fast-forward to 2014 and Microsoft is still trying to sell people on the concept of the one-size-fits-all combined Windows PC and tablet. The company is so convinced this is the right way to go that it’s backing its hunch by building its own hardware, the latest of which is the Surface Pro 2.

Microsoft wants you to think of Surface Pro 2 as a “no compromises” PC that’s also a tablet. This is exactly the same line which Gates span in 2003, and unfortunately for Microsoft, it looks like being about as successful as marketing spin as it was ten years ago.

I’ve spent the last few weeks using Surface Pro 2 extensively. I’ve taken it on trips, where I might otherwise have taken my iPad. I’ve used it at home, instead of my MacBook Air, for everything from playing games to social media to business with Office. Although I’ve enjoyed the experience in some respects, the compromises Microsoft has been forced to make in creating something which supposed replaces both PC and tablet are probably more than I’m willing to put up with.

By being a tablet, Surface Pro 2 is a compromised PC: compared to laptops with equivalent performance it’s expensive, especially when you factor in buying a keyboard (£100 to you, sir!). It’s high-end ultrabook territory.

Compare it, also, to Apple’s latest iPad. The iPad Air weighs half as much (1lb vs 2lbs), has longer battery life, and will cost you $200 (or $79 if you want cellular networking, something that’s not even an option on Surface Pro 2). And that 64GB Surface Pro 2 will have a lot less space remaining after Windows has eaten into it than you’ll get with the iPad.

So what, exactly, is the point of the Surface Pro 2? Continue reading

Repeat after me: Chrome is the platform, Android (and iOS) is just the host

I’ve been saying for some time that Google’s longer-term plans for application development all hinged around Chrome. Native Android apps are silos: although Google has built tools which allow developers to make Android apps searchable (and thus a target for ad sales, and tracking) it’s much harder than with a native HTML web app. 

Building an app using native tools is also a dead-end: developers have to work harder to create a web-native equivalent. And web-native equivalents can be easily supported by advertising, supplied by… you guessed it… Google. 

Chrome Packaged Apps, on the other hand, are “native” web apps – and the web is Google’s true focus. So it’s no surprise that Google has released an early release which lets you bring Packaged Apps to iOS and Android. 

Chome is the development platform, not Android: Android is just the host, just like iOS is. 

Samsung’s road to smartphone dominance is a dead end

How many stories in the tech press have you read over the past year which posited a theory of Apple being in trouble? Tens – probably hundreds of articles have appeared which put forward the idea that Apple’s needed to move the iPhone downmarket and create a cheaper version to gain market share. Failure to do this means doom.

So let’s take a look at a company which has followed exactly this plan, competing at every level of the smartphone market from cheap devices for the masses through to expensive, high-end phones: Samsung.

Samsung’s earnings are out, and they’re not pretty:

“Earnings will remain stagnant this year as the explosive growth of the past two to three years seems to have ended,” said Lee Sun Tae, a Seoul-based analyst at NH Investment & Securities Co. “Although the lower-end smartphone market will continue to grow, the scale of profit from that segment doesn’t compare to the high-end market so the growth seems limited.”

Samsung’s problem is simple: at the low end it is being squeezed out of existence by low-name and no-name Chinese manufacturers, all happy to stick “good enough” Android on their phones with no costly extra software. Although the company has tried to differentiate its products by value-ended extras and services, for price-conscious consumers these are meaningless or, in some cases, a turn-off.

At the high end, it is being squeezed by Apple, which has proved it can compete in any market.

If you want to make a comparison to the PC market, Samsung is like IBM was: a “quality brand” producing products which aren’t sufficiently different from cheaper commodity players like Dell. In the smartphone market, for Dell read Lenovo or (long term) Xiaomi.

What’s The iPad advantage?

Ben Bajarin gives a brilliant account of the advantage that the iPad has over other PCs, in “The iPad Advantage” ($). In particular, this paragraph absolutely hits the nail on the head:

The PC is for certain a general purpose computer. Yet its form factor limits all its general computing capabilities to only be taken advantage while in a fixed position either at a desk, or with the device sitting on your lap. The iPad, and the slate form factor take this idea of mobile general purpose computing to an entirely new level. The iPad enables its general purpose computing power to be used in both stationary and mobile situations. The iPad liberates general purpose computing from the lap or desk and enables it in contexts where computing was absent before.

The iPad is usable pretty much everywhere, and that on its own increases its power compared to other PC types. I’ve used my iPad to write hundreds of words on the London Underground, something I’d never do with a laptop (mostly for fear of impaling people either side with my elbows).

Surface Pro 2: Day… what day is it now?

One of my heroes is the philosopher Gilbert Ryle. Ryle’s big ideas – and there are many of them – is the notion of a category error. A category error is a mistake you make when you talk about something as if it were one kind of thing, treating it as such, when in fact it’s a totally different kind of thing, and should be treated in a completely different way.

Thinking of Surface Pro 2 as a tablet is a category error. The Surface Pro 2 just isn’t a tablet. It just looks a bit like one – and, importantly, I’d make the mistake of listening to its proponents, who demand it should be treated like one.

To give a concrete example: All the talk about Surface Pro 2 as a tablet had led me into the category error of wanting to use apps for everything, when perfectly good web apps exist and are fully-supported by Internet Explorer.

Take Feedly or Pocket as examples. I was looking for a decent Pocket client (hint: there isn’t one) when I could use the web site. This reflects the way I would work on my Mac, but is very different to the way I’d work on the iPad, where web apps tend to be a last resort.

Or take my annoyance at how horrible the Surface Pro is to use in portrait mode. The answer was simple: Stop using it in portrait mode. Forget, in fact, that portrait even exists as an option.

Of course, in some senses this is surrendering to the device’s limitations. However, it means that I stop being annoyed with it, and start to enjoy it for what it is: a good laptop which can sometimes be used as a tablet-like device, rather than a tablet which makes much of what a laptop does redundant.

If you wanted to sum up the difference between Surface Pro and iPad Air, this would be it: Surface Pro is a laptop, first and foremost, and makes a pretty terrible tablet. The iPad Air is a tablet first and foremost, which can be used to do maybe 80% of what most people use a laptop for.

For some people, the iPad Air is better than this. I know folks who have replaced their laptops with iPads. I think the “80%” estimate isn’t too far off for the majority of people.

For some people, Surface Pro is all the tablet they’ll ever need. All they want is to be able to occasionally use it propped up in a lap for reading, or scrawling on using the stylus, or some light email replying. And that’s OK.

Surface Pro 2 Days Four Five and Six

Day four, and I’m typing this on the iPad. There’s a reason for this, which I’ll come to later… Oh hang it, I’ll say it: I’m on a short trip and needed a portable device that I didn’t need to take a charger for. The Surface doesn’t cut it for this kind of journey.

This is one of the hidden things about the Surface Pro 2. Yes, for a laptop (I’ll come back to that too) the battery life is good, as acceptable as my pre-Haswell MacBook Air. But compared to the iPad… Well that three or four hours additional use that I get from the iPad matters.

And “not taking a charger” doesn’t just mean “because of the battery life”. It’s also down to the fact that almost everyone I know has an iPhone with a Lightening connector, which means chargers capable of topping up my iPad are all around. Can I give the Surface Pro 2 a hit of charge when I’m in a car? Nope – at least not if I want to be able to start the car later.

So, no Surface Pro on this trip. But I have been using it today, and I do have a few new comments…

Pie in the Sky(drive)

Another day, another issue connected to Skydrive. You would think when it was offline, it would let you save into a folder and sync it later. No: it makes you save it in a local folder and move it later. That’s the opposite of the way that Google Drive or Dropbox work, and it’s not really good enough.

This is not how cloud storage should work. Writing this using iA Writer Pro, I don’t have that issue. Sync is invisible, which is how it should be.

Epiphany: it’s a laptop (dumbass)

What’s become clear is you have to look at Surface Pro as a laptop. It happens to be able to be used in some tablet-like ways – for example, for a reading task in your lap. But it’s really not very good in those roles. If you think you could “replace” a real tablet with it, you’re just not using a tablet much.

The 12 Days of Surface Pro 2 – Day two

Day two of the Surface Pro 2 summed up nicely both the pros and cons of the device. First, the bad bit: I became a victim of the failed firmware update, and found myself with a tablet which wouldn’t charge, at all. It merely stayed at 10% charge, which meant that it was confined to being plugged into the wall.

However, Microsoft clearly worked overtime on this one: by midday, another firmware package had downloaded and installed which (judging by the date) reverted the firmware to the version issued at the end of October. And after an hour or so turned off and charging, it was back to full working order again.

Despite this, I’m growing to like using the Surface Pro 2 a little more. As a laptop, it’s a pretty good machine – powerful enough to do lots of stuff, and I really like the feel of the Type Cover. And I’m growing to like the modern Metro interface more and more. Once you get used to it, it feels really good. Of course, that only makes the times you are dumped into the Windows desktop even more jarring…

But – and it’s a big but – there’s still quite a few rough edges to deal with. For example, I’ve yet to manage to get Chrome working properly as the default browser. Every time I try and change it to being the default (running in Metro mode, rather than Desktop) it misbehaves, refusing to display full-screen and instead occupying a small portion of the screen, with controls and menus off the top of the screen and no way to move them back. I think this is probably something to do with the Hi-DPI display, but I have no idea how to fix it and can’t find a way to sort it out online.

And one thing that’s really clear is that 64gb simply isn’t enough. I have a few apps installed – the biggest one is Office – and I’m down to less than 20gb free. That’s with no music, no photos, no video. If I was going to buy one of these, I don’t think I could go with less than the 256gb version, and that would push the price up considerably.

The 12 days of Surface Pro 2 – Day one

If you follow me on Twitter, you’re probably aware that I’ve been using a Surface Pro 2 off and on for a few weeks. So far, my impressions of it haven’t exactly been positive. As a tablet, I’ve found it to be pretty woeful. As a laptop, it offers less than my MacBook Air.

However, prompted by Kevin Tofel, who’s been using his Surface Pro 2 as a kind of souped-up Chromebook, and Mary Branscombe, who’s been vociferous in her defence of the product, I’ve decided to give the Surface Pro 2 a proper go. In keeping with the time of year, I’m going to use the Surface Pro 2 as my only computer for 12 days, replacing my MacBook Air, iPad Air and Nexus 7.

Importantly – for this is a test of mobility as much as anything else – I’ll be carrying the Surface Pro 2 everywhere that I would normally carry one of my usual devices. This means it’s really got to replace the iPad as a tablet (carried everywhere), the MacBook Air as a laptop, and the Nexus 7 as a sofa-surfer and occasional book reader.

Day One

It’s not a good start. One of the uses I put tablets to often is reading books, using Amazon’s Kindle software on pretty-much every platform. Kindle is generally pretty amazing. It keeps my reading position in sync, and (on tablets) any book that I start reading is downloaded to read when offline.

Happily, there’s a Windows 8 “Metro” version of the Kindle software, which looks and acts the same as on other tablet platforms. Except that when I went to continue reading a book that I’d started earlier, Kindle told me it couldn’t: “An error occurred while loading the next page. Please try again later.” Because I wasn’t connected to the net, it wouldn’t load the rest of the book – which is different to the way Kindle behaves on other tablet platforms, where if you download the book it’s available offline.

The second somewhat jarring thing is the lack of a reminder of the battery life that’s left. In Windows 8.1, to get to the battery indicator, you need to swipe in from the right hand side. That’s fine, but at the back of my brain I’m feeling like this is a laptop (and a Windows one to boot) – I should be keeping an eye on the battery.

This is an objective thing: the Surface Pro 2 actually has pretty good battery life, according to every test I’ve seen. But it feels like a laptop, rather than a tablet, and that tells my computer-addled brain to keep an eye on battery.

One thing that I am instantly missing is my iPad Air’s built-in 4G. Yes, I could tether the Surface Pro to my phone, but I’ve always found that tethering is more of a pain than it should be.

Some positives: I’m using the Type Cover 2 rather than the lighter (but horrible) Touch Cover, and it’s a really nice keyboard to type on, at least when you’re using it at a table. In the lap, the combined depth of Type Cover, Surface, and kickstand (adjusted to “lap-friendly” angle) isn’t as comfortable as a regular laptop, and if you’re lying on a sofa it’s even less comfortable still. I certainly prefer either the MacBook Air or iPad Air (with or without Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover) when sofa-surfing.

The screen is a bit of a mixed bag. I love the resolution – it’s as good as the iPad Air – but the shape and size leave something to be desired. When you’re using it in landscape orientation, it’s great for video but actually pretty poor for reading documents. If you use the onscreen keyboard, you’re also left with only a sliver of content above it, which makes it tricky to write much. Portrait orientation is just generally a bust. It’s really clear Microsoft doesn’t expect anyone to use this much. It’s too long and thin for most web pages, and the width make books into the same experience as reading a newspaper with too-narrow columns. And the Windows button, which is fixed on to what’s normally the bottom edge, sits at precisely the point where your thumb is likely to rest if you hold the device in portrait mode.

Skydrive is a mixed bag too. There appears to be a limited range of syncing options: either you have only the files you’ve accessed recently available offline, or you have every file available. You can’t select individual folders and make everything in them available, as you can with Dropbox or Google Drive (UPDATED: Yes, you can, although it’s not obvious. And the default appears to be “keep everything in the cloud” rather than “download and sync”). Of course, I could just install Dropbox or Google Drive.

The selection of apps in the Windows App Store is also a mixed bag. There’s some good, high-quality products from small developers. But there’s also some categories where there just isn’t anything of decent quality. For example, there are plenty of Markdown editors, but all of the ones I’ve looked at are (at best) nothing out of the ordinary and at worst just crap.

No, the “UK national firewall” doesn’t block Boing Boing, EFF and slashdot

Government-mandated web filtering is a really bad idea, for reasons which should be obvious to anyone who’s used the Internet for long. I’m against them: I think it should be up to adults to decide what they see, and for parents to decide what their children see.

However, in opposing them, it’s really important that we don’t go off the deep end and cry wolf about what ISPs are doing. That’s why I find Cory’s post at Boing Boing about how “UK’s new national firewall: O2′s “parental control” list blocks Slashdot, EFF, and Boing Boing” concerning. 

Cory’s post takes it’s lead from another post by Peter Hansteen, which points at o2′s URL checker, which lets you see whether an individual site is blocked by o2′s web filters. The third setting – “Parental Control” – appears to block pretty-much the whole internet.

However, I think this is misleading, and conflating two very different sets of filters. The site checker Peter linked to is, I believe, related to o2′s mobile service, not its broadband service (which is now part of Sky). In common with most mobile companies, o2 has a default blacklist, which can you opt out of easily. It also has a set of much stricter “Parental control” setting which allows parents to tightly lock-down what a child with a mobile can see. It’s this second “Parental control” setting that’s basically blocks everything on the internet, apart from a handful of “child-friendly” sites.

I don’t think this is anything to do with the government mandated porn block. It’s just the same mobile filtering that’s always been there, and that’s common across pretty-much every mobile company. I can’t imagine why anyone would change any child’s mobile to basically block the whole of the internet, but it’s opt-in, and it should be up to the parents.

Sky, which now owns o2′s former broadband service (not the mobile network), does have a system of DNS-based filtering called “Broadband Shield” which is compliant with the government-”requested” filtering system. Although I haven’t run through it, it seems to work like this: when you sign up to Sky as a new customer, you’re presented with filtering options. The default setting is on, but you can change it at this point. (More details in Sky’s response to ORG’s questions about it). The “PG” and “18″ level filtering is, of course, as much riddled with inconsistency as any other filtering system, but it’s not the “OMG BLOCK EVERYTHING” that o2′s mobile parental controls are.

UPDATE: And now this piece on the New Statesman is making the same error, conflating pre-existing filters on a mobile network with Cameron’s “porn blocking” plans. This is crying wolf. The two things are not the same. For the love of god, people, let’s have a grown up debate that actually deals with the facts, rather than sensationalising things.