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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.

Nov 062010
 

Well it’s here! An android slate that is – something I’ve been after for quite a while. And it turns out to be a Toshiba Folio 100. Perhaps not the best picture, but at least it hasn’t been stolen :-

55585

Hardware Thoughts

Supposedly some people thinks it feels cheap, well I can say it doesn’t. Admittedly there is a fair amount of plastic involved in the case, which is perhaps where the thoughts come from but it’s pretty good plastic. Perhaps it compares a little unfavourably with the Apple iPad or iPhone4, but for a half plastic device it’s not bad at all. The back is textured plastic which is perhaps a slightly dated design feature, but it does mean the slate feels less likely to slip out of your hands – that iPhone experience of the slick metal and glass (for the iPhone4) and slick plastic (for earlier iPhones) feels good out of the box, but most people end up sticking it inside a case and the need to feel it securely in your hands is at least part of the reason for the case.

The back is slightly smaller than the front, which makes it look a tad slimmer than it really is, but the thinner edge makes it easier to hold onto the device. The 25cm screen sits within a larger area leaving a 2cm border around the device. Again a slightly dated design feature, but it does mean that when you hold it with your thumb on the top surface for a more secure grip, you don’t obscure any part of the screen.

The top of the bezel holds the tiny lens for the built-in webcam and a hole for the microphone. The right edge holds in order, a battery/power light, and a series of four touch sensitive buttons which are quite possibly just sensitive areas of the touchscreen – the LCD panel doesn’t extend to the edge of the device, but the glass of the touchscreen does. The top edge holds the only physical buttons – an on/off switch, and a volume control rocker switch. The on/off switch feels a little loose, which isn’t good, but the volume buttons seem to work fine.

Connectors can be found on the right edge and bottom edge with some covered by rubber covers. After having seen so many devices that recharge through a USB connection, it seems oddly old-fashioned that Toshiba have included a conventional powerbrick to plug into an old-style proprietary power-jack. This is one place where being dated is not good – why not use the USB ports for power like everyone else ?

Without commenting on the software (yet!), in use the device works pretty well. The screen is nice and clear; the touchscreen is pretty responsive and accurate although there’s always room for improvement. The only oddity is those touch sensitive buttons on the right – they sometimes seem reluctant to activate. Of course the screen is both reflective and subject to getting greasy fingerprints on it.

The Software

Before I start making any comments, please be aware of two things that may influence my comments :-

  1. I haven’t used an Android device before so I won’t be aware of how this device compares in use to other devices. Plus of course nobody (according to Google) is supposed to be using the current Android builds for tablets!
  2. My home Wifi network is especially flaky so some problems may have been down to this.

The Toshiba may be running Android 2.2 but it isn’t quite the full Google experience – there are no Google applications, and the real Android Marketplace isn’t there. Of course Toshiba has bundled in some applications to get started with, including it’s own Marketplace application, but it would be nice to have a choice. What is missing from the bundled applications is a map viewer (admittedly this would have to be manually driven given the lack of a GPS unit, but even so), and a game or two. It may also be sensible to have a more obvious “widget” on the home screen(s) to lead into a quick overview of the device. And please explain the different power lights in that quick overview!

The Marketplace. Well it looks fine at first glance, but is a little flaky in operation. It is subject to frequent crashes, and there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot in it – for instance where is the Kindle app? And what there is in there seems to be very haphazardly arranged with some rather startling choices of categories.

Ok, perhaps Toshiba have restricted apps to things that will work well on the Folio which would explain the limited numbers. Well, no. At least two of the apps I downloaded turned out to restrict themselves to a phone-sized display which looks very silly. I could understand that sort of thing on the main Android Marketplace as Android slates are so new, but in Toshiba’s “walled garden” ?

The photo above shows that at least some applications originally written for a phone-sized display work “correctly” on the larger screen of a slate, although perhaps resulting in a somewhat humorous result. Although I can imagine some people would find calculators with such big buttons useful. What Toshiba needs to do is :-

  1. Debug their marketplace app so it doesn’t crash (and doesn’t have so many issues with long lists of apps!).
  2. Restrict apps in their marketplace to those apps that work well on the Folio, and categorise them much more carefully.
  3. Allow the use of the standard Android Marketplace – perhaps with the addition of a quality warning screen. Or indeed with an option in the settings to allow it’s use.

Despite claims that this device supports Flash, the Youtube experience shows that it isn’t quite there yet – you get a screen saying you need to upgrade your version of Flash. There was a slip of paper put into the box telling me to check the Toshiba Multimedia website for a Flash download, which doesn’t seem to be there. But why can’t the Flash update be included into the standard update mechanism ? This all has the feel of a slightly rushed product. In some ways this is fair enough, providing that there are frequent updates online (through the “Toshiba Service Station”).

Over a few days, my initial impression of it being a little rushed have been reinforced – there after frequent crashes of the Toshiba applications, and the system has a habit of slowing down to a crawl from time to time. The only update that has been provided so far has been to the Toshiba Marketplace application – which didn’t come through the “Service Station” app, and that has made things worse. Now there are no applications available at all!

Apparently Dixons have gotten so many returns, that they are effectively refusing to sell any more (see the article from The Register). Toshiba needs to buck up it’s ideas pretty quickly here. Even if it is just an update to :-

  1. Provide the standard Marketplace application.
  2. Provide an option to remove all of the added Toshiba applications.
  3. Provide an explanation that the Toshiba branded applications are being temporarily removed for quality issues.

At the very least they need to send out a message either on the device itself, or via an email to urge customers to apologise, be patient and announce expected dates when updates will be provided.

Final Words

Well, even after the long awaited update the Toshiba software was still sub-standard. The best option for anyone who hasn’t lost patience and returned their Folio is a community-hacked up ROM.

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 302010
 

According to an article on The Register, our friends at Adobe are  somewhat irritated by Apple’s insistence on not allowing Flash to run on the iPhone and now the iPad. Because Apple’s platform for both products is closed, Adobe has to live with Apple’s decision on whether to allow it or not. Complaining about it amuses me, because Adobe is effectively guilty of the same kind of actions.

Almost all desktop web browsers have had the Flash plugin installed so “enhance the web browsing experience”. The fact is that we do not have much choice in the matter – many web developers insist on putting Flash elements onto web pages; sometimes the lack of Flash is merely irritating, but in many cases the whole purpose of the web service is list without Flash. For instance a Flash-less YouTube would be somewhat short on video (there is an experimental HTML5 video interface for YouTube which looks interesting but I am overlooking that for now).

Mind you that Flash plugin is also responsible for most the occasions when your web browser crashes, and it also has a tendency to “spin the wheel” and consume huge quantities of cpu time to no purpose. Admittedly it may be that the Flash experience on more conservative platforms (such as Windows) may be less unpleasant, but from what I have heard, Flash doesn’t much like Windows either.

Perhaps Apple does not want their products to get the reputation of being unreliable and unresponsive ? Of course the reason that Apple gives is that the Flash plugin is an interpreter and that they do not allow such software onto the iPhone/iPad platform for security reasons. Now on a phone, the lack of Flash can be overcome by producing specialist applications such as the YouTube app, or by accepting a phone just is not as effective at browsing the web. Of course on something like the iPad, it is going to be a little harder to accept when web sites appear broken.

Which is of course Adobe’s point. And to some extent they are right. But you do suspect that Adobe are actually more worried about their own business than the interests of consumers.

If the iPad takes off, those web sites that use Flash extensively are going to have a big incentive to produce alternate versions of their sites. Some may well opt to “wrap” their site into a iPhone/iPad app; others may simply opt to switch to HTML5 and it’s support for video (which is not quite ready for prime time just yet). The modern standard of HTML provides for much more options in generating dynamic content.

Of course this hypothetical shift away from Flash content would be bad for Adobe, because people will be less interested in paying for Adobe’s content production software. Perhaps Adobe should admit defeat and modify their software to generate standards-based web pages rather than closed binary “blobs”. It will certainly be easier to do that than to persuade Apple to unlock their platform!

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.

Jan 252010
 

For those coming by a bit late, this was written before the Apple “iSlate” (if it gets called that) is released. I am not intending to update this when it does get released – making changes to star-gazing blog entries after the event comes close to cheating.

The suspicion is that Apple’s new tablet computer will be a scaled up iPhone rather than a scaled down Macbook, although what difference this makes when both run essentially the same operating system is open to question (for those who question this, have you logged into a jail-broken iPhone? No? Well you don’t know what you’re talking about then). After all a number of Hackintosh people have put OSX onto tablet PCs to roll their own iSlates complete with handwriting recognition with software provided in every copy of OSX.

The funny thing about all the fuss about Apple’s new device is that the numerous ARM-based slates that showed up at CES gathered far less fuss that you might expect.

The interesting thing are the number of people who believe Apple could well succeed where other Tablet computers have “failed”. Not everyone believes this of course, although I’m not sure how seriously you need to take someone who believes that Microsoft invented the tablet computer in 2001. After all Microsoft released “Pen Windows” to sabotage GO’s PenPoint OS (and apparently stole many of the basic concepts) way back in 1992!

So have tablet computers really failed ?

Perhaps you do not see A5-A4 sized tablets at every business meeting, but tablets are still widespread in particular markets. It would seem that those declaring doom and despondency have limited visions of what “success” means – if someone makes a profit selling tablet PCs, they are a success.

But those watching Apple are expecting or hoping that Apple will turn the tablet into a mainstream product – to have as much success with their tablet as they have had with their iPhone. Maybe it will and maybe it won’t. It all depends on the whimsical nature of the marketplace.

Do tablet computers have a place in the mainstream ? Quite possibly as long as it is not seen as a competitor to the laptop or the desktop. This is chiefly because the screen size is just not going to be big enough to work in the way we are used to.

There are those who claim that the lack of a keyboard will stop a tablet from succeeding. There are two mistakes here – firstly they are assuming that tablets will be used like laptops. And secondly they are assuming that a large on screen keyboard is not sufficient for the occasional bit of typing – a few instant messaging comments, commenting on a video, etc.

Of course there is nothing stopping you from adding a bluetooth keyboard (or even wired) to a tablet computer. You would need some form of stand to hold the tablet in a laptop configuration – like this (ok that is not really a stand, but you get the idea).

But what will make a tablet computer big is the content – tablets are by their nature devices for consuming content. Reading books, watching videos, browsing the web, etc. The rumour is that Apple is looking to get subsidies for their tablet by going to content creators; the danger with that is that the content creators will expect their investment back and then some – with the risk that they will overprice the content discouraging it’s use.

Jan 232010
 

When you first encounter those iPhone apps which automatically rotate into some form of landscape mode (often with a larger on screen keyboard), you think “Oh cool”. And it seems pretty useful.

Well the landscape mode certainly is, but the automatic rotation between portrait and landscape mode can begin to grate a little – it often seems to activate when you don’t want it to, and refuses to activate when you want it to. Not that it’s the fault of the iPhone really. It is just the our usage of the iPhone is too unpredictable to say that whenever the iPhone is in a landscape orientation that we want to use it in that orientation. We may simply have bent over to scratch a knee and accidentally rotated the iPhone.

It would be nice if the iPhone OS had two additional features :-

  • The ability to turn off the autorotation feature at a global level.
  • The ability to manually switch into landscape mode – presumably with some sort of twist gesture on the screen.

Interestingly it seems that others may also agree as I have come across other iPhone apps that do offer the facility to turn off auto-landscape mode.

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