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Dec 182014
 

Today I happened to come across a story about a priest who uses a signal blocker to stop phones from shrieking, bleeping, or blurting during church services. Very possibly illegal, although it’s quite understandable.

After all a church service is just like a theatrical performance and the distraction of phones is likely to put people off. We need more quiet at times – such as in the theatre, church, the quiet carriage in a train, or even a meeting room.

But a signal blocker is going too far – if there is an emergency, we need to be able to use our phones. And asking people does not work – there are always a few people who won’t bother to silence their phones. Not necessarily because they don’t care, but sometimes simply because they don’t think of it.

Rather than blocking phones, we need to tell phones to silent themselves automatically.

And it could be quite easy to do. In quiet zones, simply broadcast a well accepted SSID (“QUIETPLACE” perhaps?) and configure phones to automatically mute themselves when they see such an SSID. It would require support from phone manufacturers as most of us wouldn’t bother if we have to set something up – or even just install an App to do it, but it’s certainly possible.

Oct 062012
 

Now that all the fuss over the new iPhone5 has calmed down a bit, it is time to take a look at the iPhone5. Okay, so what fuss was there amongst anybody other than the die-hard Apple fans who would buy any iPhone5 without considering whether or not it was carved out of a pile of petrified rhino bile? Well of course there was the media crowd jumping up and down in excitement at the prospect of an expenses paid trip to somewhere exotic.

But not many others.

It isn’t as if the iPhone5 were a bad phone; when you come down to it, it is a sensible upgrade from the iPhone4S. The key new features are :-

  • Most “exciting” of all (which is itself a bad sign) is the new dock connector which effectively makes all previous iPhone add-ons redundant. Understandably this has annoyed many people, but it had to be done sooner or later. After all the old connector was nearly 10 years old which is positively geriatric in the technology world.
  • The processor was a little bit faster, and there is a little bit more memory.
  • The screen is “bigger” … or rather taller. Nice enough I suppose, although it is hardly a Galaxy SIII or a Galaxy Note (1 or 2).
  • Apple have realised that there are a few people outside North America who might want to use 4G network speeds, and so their LTE support covers more frequency bands. Although despite having three variants of the iPhone5 which cover different frequency bands, they still cannot offer LTE in all markets. And of course having three different phones not only makes manufacturing more costly, but prevents customers roaming so easily as they could do with the iPhone4S.
  • The new phone is thinner and lighter than the old iPhones, although those who have encountered problems with the aluminium case getting scratched may prefer the old weight of the stainless steel case which was more robust in this sense.
  • And of course the iPhone5 now uses the even fiddlier nano-SIM.

Ignoring the software side of things, this all looks a little depressing. All very sensible, but one person’s sensible is another person’s resting upon your laurels. And if you keep that up, sooner or later someone comes along and tips you into a muddy ditch.

Just ask Nokia.

Oct 042011
 

So it has been announced at last. The iPhone 4S, which is more or less an iPhone 4 with some fiddling – a faster processor, an improved antenna, and a software update that gives it a feature that Android has had for a while. That is voice control.

Undoubtedly it will all be done in a very slick way – that is the Apple way, but is it enough ?

Well it all depends on what you mean by “enough”. It will undoubtedly sell – both to the Apple fans who worship anything Apple produces whatever the merits, but will it sell enough to keep Apple’s current level of influence in the mobile smartphone sector ? After all, Steve Jobs has now left and everyone is wondering how the new Apple will maintain it’s leadership in the smartphone and slate market.

Well the iPhone 4S is nice, but so is my iPhone 4. But it is hardly a major improvement – yes it’s faster; probably a lot faster. And the antenna improvement will please those who managed to tickle the antenna problem on the iPhone 4 (I could only do so by going through ridiculous contortions).

It’s a perfectly reasonable mid-life facelift, but it’s a touch late for a mid-life facelift, although admittedly a bit early for a whole new phone. Oh! Sure Apple will claim that the internals are completely different, but it’s still an improved iPhone 4 rather than an iPhone 5. Although it’s unreasonable, Apple’s problem here is that the iPhone 4S looks a little boring and in a post-Jobs era, they need to convince people that they are still able to release exciting products. And this isn’t it.

The big problem I see from my personal perspective is that there is no option for an iPhone with a big screen (and no I don’t mean an iPad!). If you look at the oodles of choice you can find in the Android phone market, you will find examples of premium smartphones with larger screens than the iPhone. Such as the Samsung Galaxy S II with a 4.3″ screen, and that is not even the largest smartphone screen you can find (although it may well be the best).

Sure not everyone wants a large screen on their smartphone, but I do and Android gives me that choice. And plenty of other choices – 3D screens, physical keyboards, etc. And no being chained up in Apple’s walled garden!

So yes, sorry Apple but it’s a bit of a yawn event. Try again with a proper iPhone 5 with a large (for a smartphone) screen.

Mar 282011
 

Today I hear the Apple iPhone has been bitten by yet another bug causing alarms to go off at the wrong time. This is hardly the first time that Apple has had a problem with it’s IOS Clock application. And every time Apple rushes out a “fix” that supposedly stops the problem.

It’s now blatantly obvious that Apple is rushing out “workarounds” and not spending any time on proper fixes here. I mean come on guys, a software clock is hardly rocket science. You shouldn’t be having multiple related problems like this.

What is almost certainly happening here, is that Apple management are accepting quick fixes from the engineers, but ignoring their requests to spend more resources on properly fixing the application. Odd as it may seem, the Clock application was probably originally written by one of Apple’s least experienced engineers – it is the kind of application farmed off to the new guy who has just arrived from University.

Now that is usually fine – Notes works well enough – but in some cases you end up with an application that is riddled with inexplicable bugs and Clock’s time related bugs are inexplicable in the sense that Clock should be using APIs to do this which are ancient and robust in the extreme. This sort of problem is commonly found in the kind of code that is overly complex, inscrutable, and makes far too little use of APIs.

What Apple’s engineers have probably done is ask for time to ‘refactor’ the code. What this means is basically :-

  1. Ripping out code that implements functions that have been implemented in a library somewhere. Novice programmers often write code that implements a function that has already been written. The programmers writing the library function usually have a greater incentive to get their code right.
  2. Ripping out and replacing the worst of the inscrutable code.
  3. Shuffling around and improving the documentation.

Unfortunately when an engineer mentions the word “refactor”, poor managers think “unproductive” (or in the worst case don’t understand and don’t ask). You wouldn’t have thought that Apple was riddled with poor managers in charge of their software engineers, but perhaps they are. This is a really bad sign for Apple (and Apple customers) – all of their products rely on good software engineering, and if they can’t get a Clock application right, you have to wonder how soon the rest of their code will collapse around our ears.

Apple – it’s time to do something serious. The Clock is ticking …

(sorry)

Jul 242010
 

This is not so much a review, as a collection of random thoughts that occur to me as I get used to my iPhone4. As such, you may well see it change over the month ahead as I get used to it.

Firstly, the shiny glass back cover means I cannot just put the new iPhone on the arm of my chair. The old iPhone (a 3G) sits quite happily there, but the new one is far too keen to slide off. Worth bearing in mind if you’re used to a “sticky” iPhone – wouldn’t want you to have an accident with a brand new phone!

Next is the special coating the glass gets to prevent fingerprints. Nice try, but they can still appear. Of course today my fingers are especially sweaty and greasy so although some prints are showing up, the screen is a good deal better than older iPhones would have been.

Finally (for now), and this one is hardly Apple’s faulty, but there are some applications out there that lose data when you go through a backup old phone and restore to new phone. This is definitely a bug in those applications, and I’m sure they know who they are, because better written applications didn’t lose a bit of data. Apple itself does in fact lose passwords, but I would guess this is a security measure to ensure that stored passwords can’t be “hacked” by restoring a stolen phone backup onto another phone.

The new iPhone does not give an initial impression of being significantly smaller than the old iPhone – even though for the first weekend I was shuffling between old and new phones. But it does seem a lot smaller as soon as you start carrying it around – it feels quite a bit smaller in the pocket.

The known problems with the aerial are obviously a serious issue for those effected, but I suspect the number of sufferers is smaller than the impression given online. After all complaints are louder than the sounds of satisfaction. Certainly I have not seen the issue myself.

Jul 242010
 

When the iPhone was first introduced, it was available on “unlimited” data plans although in reality “unlimited” meant “as much as we think is reasonable” with no indication of how much was reasonable. The first iPhone was also not capable of being “tethered” to a computer so the computer could use the phone as an Internet router – which was kind of odd as all other smart phones allowed that.

And then the iPhone acquired the tethering ability and the carriers insisted that customers pay extra for tethering. Which was sort of odd as no other smart phone required that. But it was sort of understandable as the iPhone had an “unlimited” data plan, and the ease of use had encouraged customers to make use of that “unlimited” data plan to the extent that many mobile networks suffered from a lack of bandwidth. The extra cost of tethering was a means of rationing how much bandwidth an iPhone customer could use.

But now with the iPhone4, all those “unlimited” data plans have mysteriously disappeared to be replaced with plans that limit you to 500Mb-1Gb per month. And yes you still have to pay extra for tethering. Why ?

Now that the data plan is no longer unlimited, why is there an extra charge for tethering ? Surely we are now in a situation where it does not matter what you use the data bandwidth for, but merely how much and whether you exceed the default limit. Those who want to exceed that limit pay more; those who want to tether only in an emergency don’t need to pay extra for something they do not need every day.

And yes I am one of those who would only use tethering in what to me are unusual circumstances – I don’t travel frequently and when I do travel, I have no great urge to ensure that I’m online. But just occasionally it may be useful – say if I’m contacted by work, as a laptop is far better to run an ssh client than an iPhone.

Jun 262010
 

I have yet to play with (or indeed spend much time reading about) iOS4 so it is possible that I am totally wrong with this one and this missing feature is actually supplied by the latest iPhone operating system. But if not … what about plugin input methods ?

That is allow other people to write extensions to the on-screen iPhone keyboard. Whilst Apple have undoubtedly come up with the best possible method for inputing text on a touch-screen, there are always a few who would like to try other ways such as :-

You could even allow users to craft their own on screen keyboards to allow easy access to extra symbols such as emoticons – which for some strange reason are available on certain far eastern keyboards but not on English ones ?!?

Apr 232010
 

If you get yourself one of Apple’s iThingies (an iPhone, iPad, or iTouch) you are officially restricted to installing software onto it from the selection in Apple’s App store. Which is hardly news, as is the news that geeky types do not like this – which is why the iThingies have been “jailbroken” to allow the addition of unauthorised software.

At this point I would like to point out that I am not an Apple hater – I own an iPhone 3G and intend to upgrade to an iPhone 4G (when it comes out). I also use a Macbook Pro as my work laptop. I like Apple products. But Apple gets and deserves some criticism …

Much of the criticism of Apple’s software model for the iThingies has revolved around the continual censorship of the applications allowed into the App store. This is fair enough, and indeed Apple has made itself a laughing stock with inconsistency applied standards with applications rejected for breaching conditions not applied to other applications. In addition even Apple’s published standards can be become more restrictive leading to situations where you can find it impossible to restore an application that you have paid for!

But despite these disadvantages, the App Store method of software distribution does on the surface offer something genuinely advantageous to the average consumer. The applications in the App Store have been verified by Apple as being appropriate for use – reducing the malware problem considerably. One of the regulations is that applications should not be capable of interpreting code (approximately) which reduces if not eliminates the damage a compromised application can cause.

But a single source of applications is limiting and potentially dangerous. Indeed it can even be considered to be a restriction on trade as Apple is the gatekeeper (and insists on a rather large toll) for any developer who wants to develop for the iThingies. Perhaps ordinary consumers do not care about this especially when you consider that many applications have a very reasonable cost.

But it is still of some concern. The restrictions make experimentation more difficult.

But perhaps more seriously it prevents tinkering by ordinary consumers. This can be an advantage but is also a significant disadvantage as the very people who developed the iThingies would have tinkered with consumer devices as children on their way to becoming developers. By restricting tinkering by children we restrict the size of possible people who go on to become the techies of the future.

The obvious counter to this are the existence of other devices that are far more open – even equivalent devices to Apple’s iThingies such as the various Google Android devices. But if Apple’s App store model is successful enough (and it certainly seems to be heading that way), we could find ourselves with the same model being extended to not only competitors to Apple’s iThingies, but to more general purpose computing devices – netbooks, laptops, desktops, or even servers.

We could end up in a situation where the only devices you can buy are devices that can only run software sanctioned by the vendor. A dangerous possibility.

Jan 272010
 

Enough details have leaked from the announcement to talk a little about Apple’s new toy – the iPad (which seems to be one of the less popular guesses about the name – I went with the “iSlate” possibility). For those looking for the specifications :-

  • 1.25cm thick.
  • 700g heavy
  • 25cm multitouch display
  • 1GHz Apple A4 chip – presumably an ARM variant.
  • Between 16GB and 64GB of flash memory
  • Around 10 hours of battery life.

And it starts at $499 for a 16Gbyte one limited to WiFi access – what’s the betting that means £499 in the UK ?

Basically it’s a big iPhone with all the advantages and disadvantages that brings – both great usability and savage vendor lock-in. There are a few new presumably built-in applications to allow for the greater functionality possibilities – an eBook reader, iWorks, etc.

Interestingly Apple also announced a keyboard for the iPad and implies that it should work with any bluetooth keyboard. Finally admitted that not allowing keyboards on the iPhone was a mistake ? Maybe Steve Jobs finally listened to me 🙂 Who knows ? Maybe the next version of the iPhone software will include keyboard support.

And where’s the forward facing webcam ? That is perhaps the biggest missing feature. Whilst you may want a separate device for making normal videos, a webcam suitably placed for video chatting is pretty much the norm for those little Netbooks that Steve hates so much.

There are other things missing too :-

  • A set of magnets to let you stick the iPad to your fridge in the kitchen – get a recipe up on the iPad, stick it onto the fridge whilst you cook.
  • An SD card slot or two. Who wants to buy a replacement iPad if you find that the 16Gbyte version is not quite big enough. Well Steve wants you to, but an SD card slow would let you hold off on that extra purchase.
  • A USB port or four. Sure there’s Apple’s dock connector and I’m not suggesting they get rid of it. But not have a USB port to allow emergency charging and connecting to a portable hard disk ? Or a USB keyboard ?

The funny thing about the Apple site is that special section proclaiming how green Apple is with their iPad. Total rubbish of course. There is no user replaceable battery and no expandable storage, so the only option you are left with when the battery life declines to a level where it becomes useless or you run out of storage, is to throw the old iPad away and buy a new one. Being green isn’t just about using less environmentally hostile materials.

But does it do anything about the vendor lock-in for content ? It does not seem very likely – this is Apple we are talking about after all. However it does seem that the iBook application (and it used to be the name of a nifty Apple laptop) does support the ePub format. Whether that means that content bought through iBook will be transportable to other devices remains to be seen.

Whilst most of us are used to vendor lock-in when it comes to software – Windows software runs on machines running Windows; OSX software runs on Apple computers, and Linux software runs everywhere(!). We are not so used to the idea that content is only available on one device.

If I buy a book, a film on disc, a magazine, I own a physical object that I can put on shelves and go back to later. If I buy an eBook to go on the iPad, can I read it on anything else ? My Sony reader ? Anything else ? Well we do not have enough details to say, but I doubt it.

Content “hoarders” who accumulate scarily large piles of books, etc. are unlikely to be too keen on a content paradigm that means that content stays locked to a device. I have books that are in the region of 100 years old, and even some tatty paperbacks that belonged to my grandfather; will I still be able to read eBooks that I bought on the iPad in 40 years time ?

As it is an Apple product is has a certain “cool” aura, and I am sure it will sell. Heck, if Apple announced a downgraded iPod Classic they would have fans who would buy it without checking that the new hard disk (120Gbytes) was smaller than the old (160Gbytes). Will it change the way we think of consuming content ? I somehow doubt it. It will however push forward the idea of tablet type devices as a way of consuming content; not enough to gain iPhone-like status (which effectively put the smartphone into the hands of the ordinary consumer, and gave a swift sharp kick to other smartphone manufacturers).

Would I buy one ? Well if I had not already bought a netbook/slate to use as a couch potato machine – I tend to look things up whilst watching TV – I might very well do so. But would it replace my Sony eReader if I managed to put my own DRM-free eBooks onto it in a satisfactory manner. Hmm … will Stanza adapt well to the iPad ?

Hey! Apple, want to donate one in return for a review ? 🙂

Still not convinced by the name – iPad ? Sounds kind of American and comes across kind of odd to British ears – Apple’s crash-pad, a pad for dealing with spills, not a notebook that we use for scribbling notes in.

Jan 252010
 

According to an article from The Register, there has been a study to show that people in Britain rarely use their smartphones to “connect to the Internet”, and in the very next sentence mentions “surfing the web”. Well which one do they mean ?

Yes there is a difference, and that difference is important as we’ll go on to find out …

The exception to the trend are iPhone users who do use their smartphones to connect to the Internet more than other smartphone users. As an iPhone user myself, I can point out two things that to anyone who thinks that “accessing the Internet” and “surfing the web” are the same thing appears to be contradictory :-

  1. I very rarely browse the web on the iPhone.
  2. I frequently connect to the Internet using different applications on the iPhone – in particular instant messaging, email, and various reference tools (such as Wikipanion).

Now that’s got most of the dumb IT industry analysts going “Uh?”.

The reason that nobody browses the web on a smartphone is that the screen is just too small. Ok, the iPhone screen is pretty nice, but it is still too small for browsing the web – all that pinching in and out so you can see the web page as a whole and then read the content, is just a little tedious. And why not wait a few minutes until you have access to a better screen ?

Where the Internet usage comes from are the little applications that effectively present the Internet in an appropriate way for such a small screen – the map that shows the nearest bars, the search tool that looks up what you enter in a dictionary, in Wikipedia, etc. And of course instant messaging and VoIP.

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