Category Archives: Tech Companies

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.

A fictionalised conversation between me and a Surface Pro 2 fan

Me: “Surface Pro 2 makes a pretty poor laptop, because of its crazy kick stand and lack of a bundled keyboard. Just buy an ultrabook or MacBook Air.”

SurfaceGuy: “But! What laptop can you just take off the keyboard and use as a tablet?”

Me: “Yeah, but the Surface Pro 2 makes a really poor tablet. It’s too heavy, really hard to use in portrait mode, and you keep being dumped back into the crappy old Windows desktop to do things. Just buy an iPad or good Android tablet, or even a Surface if you like that sort of thing.”

SurfaceGuy: “But! What other tablet can you clip a keyboard on to and have a fully-fledged laptop?”

Me: “But it’s a pretty poor laptop…”

And so it goes, round and round. Point out Surface Pro 2 is a poor laptop, and you get pointed towards the fact it’s also a tablet. Point out it’s a pretty poor tablet, and you get pointed back towards the fact that it’s also a laptop.

Cheap Android phones don’t mean what you think they mean

Benedict Evans ponders the meaning of Android:

As should be obvious, this makes counting total ‘Android’ devices as though they tell you something about Google or Apple’s competitive position increasingly problematic. But to me, pointing out that ‘Android’ doesn’t necessarily competed with iPad is rather boring – what’s really interesting are the possibilities that these new economics might unlock. 

A good example is this – a 2G Android phone wholesaling for $35 (just one of hundreds). Now, stop thinking about it as a phone. How do the economics of product design and consumer electronics change when you can deliver a real computer running a real Unix operating system with an internet connection and a colour touch screen for $35? How about when that price falls further? Today, anyone who can make a pocket calculator can make something like this, and for not far off the same cost. The cost of putting a real computer with an internet connection into a product is collapsing. What does that set of economics enable? 

Benedict picks out what’s really interesting about Android, and it’s absolutely not that “80% market share” pundits keep going throwing around. The kinds of devices that Benedict describes aren’t in the same market as the iPhone: a $35 2G smartphone is as comparable to the iPhone as a Mercedes S-Class is to a Mini. Both do the same thing (carry you around), but no one who’s in the market for one of them will end up walking out of a showroom with the other. 

But what is interesting, as Benedict points out, is what a $35 Internet access device enables. When devices like this are as pervasive as a pocket calculator used to be, what does that allow us to do? Smart devices, network-enabled, which are almost cheap enough to throw away are much more interesting in the long term than expensive (but undoubtedly brilliant) devices like the iPhone. 

What are low end tablets used for?

Ben Bajarin takes a peek into the “white box” segment of the tablet market and finds out what they're being used for:

Nearly all evidence and data we find comes back to a few fundamental things. First, most of these low cost tablets in the category of ‘other’ are being used purely as portable DVD players, or e-readers. Some are being used for games, but rarely are they connecting to web services, app stores, or other key services. I have asked local analysts, local online services companies, app tracking firms, and many many more regional experts, and the answer keeps coming back the same. They affirm that we see the data showing all these Android tablet sales. But they aren’t actually showing up on anyone’s radar when it comes to apps and services in a meaningful way.

Is this even the same market as the iPad? I don't think it really is. Whereas the iPad is being used to effectively replace (or augment) the PC in many homes and businesses, this looks much more like a replacement for the portable DVD player. Think video iPod, not Mac replacement.

The Problems Faced By Windows Phone

Long-time Windows Phone user Romit Mehta decided to buy an iPhone 5S, and his reasons for doing so exemplify why Windows Phone is in trouble.

Two of the problems Romit lists strike me as being particularly important when considering the future of Windows Phone:

Windows Phone lacks polished features. Romit talks about Notification Centre, and the similar Windows Phone feature lacks the ability to see recent updates clearly:

Invariably, I find myself hearing a notification from the phone and not realizing what it was for by the time I pick it up from across the room. Could it have been an ESPN score alert, or a News360 breaking news alert? If it is a WhatsApp message, I know the live tile gets updated, but what if the tile already had a non-zero number?

Then there are the missing enterprise features, something which might be surprising coming from Microsoft:

My new office has wifi everywhere on campus, but they use Microsoft Protect EAP (PEAP) for network authentication, which I couldn’t get to work on my Lumia. As I understand, it is not supported by Windows Phone 8 and is not available in GDR2 either.

Family and friends are elsewhere. Romit talks about how his family use iPhones, and it would be “great if I could iMessage with them and FaceTime with them for free.” You could argue that they should switch away from Apple-only technologies, but when you’re dealing with users who just want something that works, and it’s already “just working” for them, that’s a tough sell. And unlike Windows Phone, if Romit has any Android-using friends, there’s a version of Google Hangouts available for iPhone.

Microsoft’s biggest problem is that it’s playing catch-up, both from a development perspective and in its market share. Although having cloud-based services means it can avoid some of the worst network effects, it’s playing catch-up there too: Skydrive is a good product, but it lacks both mindshare and marketshare compared to Dropbox and Google Drive. Hotmail is still a powerful force, but the impetus is towards Gmail. And Office remains a strong brand, but its appeal is now mostly limited to the office: home users are increasingly looking elsewhere.

Why did Microsoft buy Nokia?

Why did Microsoft buy Nokia?1 Why did the company choose to spend €5.44 billion of its cash reserves to buy a company that was already a close partner for Windows Phone, and which it had committed to pay billions in “platform support” cash2 to use its operating system?

Here's the official reasoning:

Building on the partnership with Nokia announced in February 2011 and the increasing success of Nokia’s Lumia smartphones, Microsoft aims to accelerate the growth of its share and profit in mobile devices through faster innovation, increased synergies, and unified branding and marketing. For Nokia, this transaction is expected to be significantly accretive to earnings, strengthen its financial position, and provide a solid basis for future investment in its continuing businesses.

The part about “faster innovation” is curious. Nokia never had a problem with innovation: it holds one of the largest patent portfolios in the tech industry, and collects billions of dollars per year to prove it. But what it always had was a problem with bringing that innovation to market. Nokia engineers were talking about single-button touchscreen smartphones years before the iPhone, but failed to bring their brilliant prototypes to market.

And failing to bring great concepts to market is something that Microsoft, too, has been guilty of. Potential innovations like the Courier floated around and then died. The company had prototype ereader hardware around years before the Kindle, and failed to bring it to market. In both cases, the reason for the failure to bring innovation to market was simple: protecting the Windows brand. If it doesn't run Windows (or isn't called Windows), Microsoft won't ship it – no matter how innovative it is.

What about the other reasons? Marketing, branding and advertising? What “synergies” (read: cost savings) can the two companies find there? Microsoft/Nokia might be able to drive better deals for ads and consolidate its work into a single agency, but there aren't billions of dollars of savings to be made there.

Marketing? If Microsoft wants to sell anything, it's going to have to ramp up the quality and quantity of marketing. Samsung outspends everyone else enormously when it comes to marketing, and even the cash reserves of Microsoft won't make up for a gap that big. Can Microsoft really compete with a company that spends more on marketing than Apple, HP, Dell, Microsoft and Coca Cola combined?

Maybe it could if the quality of its marketing was up to Apple's standards. But take a look at the advertising and marketing work for Surface and I you'll see why I have doubts it can deliver. When you create a tablet computer and choose to emphasis how great it works with an optional £100 keyboard, you're either trying to cover up the product's deficiencies as a tablet, or utterly missing the point.

Branding? Only if you ditch the Nokia brand. Otherwise, you have two brands, which is confusing and expensive. And given the license to “Nokia” that Microsoft has paid for, unlikely.

So if the “official” reasons make such little sense, why did Microsoft buy Nokia? Ben Thompson makes a good case that the Microsoft/Nokia deal was driven by an immanent switch to Android – or bankruptcy:

I theorize that Nokia was either going to switch to Android or was on the verge of going bankrupt. (I suspect the latter: part of the deal included €1.5 billion in financing available to Nokia immediately). And, had Nokia abandoned Windows Phone, then Windows Phone would be dead.

Which brings us back to that point about how Microsoft's failure to bring innovative products to market could be ascribed to its determination to protect Windows. Nokia was either going to go down the tubes, or admit defeat and move into the Android camp. This would have killed Windows, and condemned the Windows brand to the PC ghetto. And Windows is sacred: a few billion dollars of offshore cash (which Microsoft couldn't bring back into the US anyway without incurring lots of tax) is a small price to pay to “protect” the sacred cow of Windows.


  1. Yes, I know it's only bought the devices and services divisions and that the new/old Nokia will continue on. But to all intents and purposes, Microsoft has bought what most people think of as Nokia. 

  2. It may actually turn out that the billions in platform support would have ended up more than the amount Microsoft paid for Nokia. Looked at purely in this way, this is a good deal. 

How not to do a review

The Verge reviews the new Nexus 7:

So when Google announced the new, $229 Nexus 7, I immediately leapt to the pre-order page. This would solve all my problems! It has a fantastic display, a great processor, all the books and magazines and movies I want, and it’s so small and light it’ll go everywhere with me. Right?

Then I looked over at the Nexus 7 I bought last year, which I loved to pieces. But it’s sat dormant for six months. The battery’s dead, maybe permanently. I scratched the screen pretty good, too. But a year is a long time, and maybe this would be the one. I had to find out.

Someone who runs out on day one and buys a product is highly unlike to admit on day three that they’ve bought a lemon, no matter what faults they find. That’s just human nature, and it’s one of the reasons why, when doing reviews, you get short-term loaners from the company rather than buying your own.

Low end Chromebooks

Bloomberg:

Chromebooks have in just the past eight months snagged 20 percent to 25 percent of the U.S. market for laptops that cost less than $300, according to NPD Group Inc. The devices, which have a full keyboard and get regular software updates from Google, are the fastest-growing part of the PC industry based on price, NPD said.

I’m not surprised at the news that Chromebooks have grabbed up to a quarter of the US market for laptops under $300. If you’re spending that little, a Chromebook will give you a lot more performance for your money than something running Windows or even Linux [1].


  1. As will a tablet with a keyboard, although if you want the best one you’ll have to pay a little more.  ↩

Why buy a Nexus over an iPad?

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes is really quite impressed by the Nexus 7, going as far as to say that:

If Apple doesn’t raise its game with respect to the iPad, my next full-size tablet could be a Nexus.

I’m going to leave to one side a lot of what Adrian says in support of the Nexus 7, because it boils down to things which are either personal preference or equally applicable to the iPad mini. However, I’m not sure why he makes the statement above: After all, there’s already a nice, big Nexus device which – from the perspective of hardware – matches the larger iPad.

Personally, I haven’t used my Nexus 7 since I bought the iPad mini. There’s nothing in the N7 that’s superior to the mini, apart from the price. If you want a tablet and are on a really tight budget, the N7 will serve you well. But really, if you can afford the extra money for the mini, spend it: you won’t regret it for a moment.

Even if you’re wedded to Google services, the mini is probably the better option. With Gmail, Google Maps, YouTube, Google Drive and pretty-much everything else well supported by apps on the iPad, you’re missing out on almost nothing, and you have a wider variety of apps to choose from (and generally better quality ones too).

Something doesn’t add up in the lastest Washington Post PRISM story

The Washington Post has released additional slides from the PRISM deck, which it has annotated and which have resurrected the “equipment installed at company premises” claim. Some – notably Glenn Greenwald – have claimed this proves the “direct access to company databases” claim from the original story has been verified, despite the vociferous denials of all the companies involved.

But does it? Dig a little deeper, and I think it becomes clear that the WaPo hasn’t got the story it thinks it has.

First, there’s nothing in the released slides themselves which directly corroborates the “installed at company premises” claim, which exists only in the annotations that the reporter, Barton Gellman, has added to the slides. Here’s how the process is described by Gellman:

The search request, known as a “tasking,” can be sent to multiple sources — for example, to a private company and to an NSA access point that taps into the Internet’s main gateway switches. A tasking for Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Apple and other providers is routed to equipment installed at each company. This equipment, maintained by the FBI, passes the NSA request to a private company’s system.

The slides themselves, though, make no mention of much of this. In particular, there’s no reference to company premises in anything on the slides. 

Given that the slides don’t say that equipment is installed at the company, where has this point come from? I think there’s three options:

  1. It’s featured in other, as-yet unreleased slides.
  2. It comes from verbal or written testimony from Edward Snowden or another intelligence source.
  3. It’s an interpretation of something in the released slides.

The first option is possible, but I think we can rule it out. If there was a clear, unambiguous statement that the FBI had equipment installed in company premises on another slide, I can’t see why the WaPo wouldn’t publish that slide, even if it had to do so in heavily redacted form. So that leaves us with the other options.

Is the WaPo relying on unknown third-party sources? If it was, I can’t see why it wouldn’t add an “intelligences sources confirmed…” in the story. It would be a stronger story for it, so why not say? If, on the other hand, it’s Snowden, I can understand why it might avoid naming him as the source. Snowden’s direct testimony has proved to be occasionally exaggerated and sometimes even unreliable – but the WaPo could use “a source familiar with the whole presentation” instead of naming him, which would again strengthen the story.

At this point, I think the onus is on the WaPo be a little transparent and clear this up. If there’s additional evidence, show it – or at least note you’re relying on it.

Which leaves us with the third option: interpretation. And I think this is where WaPo has, at the very least, produced something that’s an epic muddle. The muddle occurs around the box labelled “FBI Data Intercept Technology Unit (DITU)”.

A DITU sounds like a piece of technology. It sounds like the kind of thing that you would install somewhere to do intercepts, and, given the way the diagram is structured, you might well surmise that it was installed on company premises.

 

But it’s not. In fact, the Data Intercept Technology Unit isn’t a piece of technology, something which would sit at the premises of a company. In fact, it’s a department of the FBI, formed several years ago, tasked with data interception of the “packet sniffing” variety (it even has its own Challenge Coin). It’s known to use a suite of packet inspection tools which allow it, from TCP/IP data, to recreate emails, IM, images, web pages and more. Essentially, it specialises in snooping tools which let you find out what someone is doing online without having access to the original servers. Essentially, it will tap data at the ISP level, rather than the server level.

The annotation on the second new is where the waters get really muddy. In a note attached to the box for the DITU, Barton adds:

From the FBI’s interception unit on the premises of private companies… [my emphasis]

Does Gellman think that DITU is the “interception unit”? I emailed him to ask, and initially he confirmed that the “interception unit” referred to in the annotation was the DITU – which would be a fairly major error. However, when I pointed out that this made no sense, he clarified, claiming that by “interception unit” he was referring to the organisation within the FBI, not the equipment. All clear on that?

WaPo DITU

This, though, makes the annotations even more puzzling. Why would you use the phrase “interception unit on the premises” to refer to the organisation within the FBI? Clearly, the organisation isn’t on the premises – the equipment (supposedly) is.

The other option is that Gellman is using “interception unit” to mean both the DITU and the equipment, which would be – at the very least – pretty poor writing. So what exactly does Gellman mean? Perhaps understandably, he declined to answer further questions.

None of this means that the WaPo doesn’t have a story. We now know that the FBI’s DITU can be tasked by the NSA to conduct live surveillance on the data of identified (and 51%-certain-foreign) targets. The NSA can also request data from previous FBI DITU surveillance. These specifics weren’t known before, so Gellman and the WaPo should get credit for a scoop.

But it isn’t the scoop they think it is, because the slides don’t confirm either the direct server access that Greenwald is crowing about or the presence of on-premise equipment at Google, Apple, and the rest. There’s simply nothing in the slide which states that equipment is on-site, and there’s no alternative source for this claim. There’s no way I can see to interpret anything on the slides as putting that “interception unit” inside the premises, accessing data on demand without any company oversight. 

A more likely scenario, particularly given the DITU’s heritage as data tappers, is that the equipment taps into Internet backbones – something that’s supported by one of the original slides, which referred to how much of the world’s comms data flowed through the US. Why bother with a slide like that if you’re tapping directly into Google’s servers?

The WaPo story isn’t proof of mass warrantless surveillance of US citizens, or (as it stands) of in-house equipment at Google, Apple, Microsoft and the rest. Unless it has more evidence which hasn’t been published that explicitly shows this, not much new controversial information has been added to what we know about the NSA and its activities.